What rugby must learn from football's VAR system if it is to avoid refereeing injustice
Love it or hate it, football (soccer) has presented a simple solution to the obvious flaw facing rugby's TMO process. And with what is set to be the most fiercely contested Rugby World Cup in history looming, World Rugby risk dereliction of duty by ignoring the obvious flaw in the TMO process and football's solution.
The TMO, a now well-known acronym, love it or hate it, for rugby’s Television Match Official. Later than most sports, although surprisingly earlier than its colossal sporting cousin that is football, rugby union handed referees access to video replays in hope of minimizing errs and widespread disappointment (and outrage) within supporters ranks. For the most part, this has been a move of great success. But like all things in life, there are flaws and one particular flaw in the TMO process is quite simply staggering in the modern era.
Rugby is a complicated sport and the governing body is currently locked in a precarious tussle between simplifying the game (in the hope of expanding its fan base) and staying true to the values that have seen it become beloved by so many.
Our complex and ever-evolving game, by its very nature, presents a challenging prospect for referees at the elite level. Not only do referees have to make the correct call under the intense pressure, they are faced with the challenge of ensuring sure you are refereeing the latest version of the laws. As it turns out, we do love a rule change. And of course, let us not forget the directives sent down the adjudicating ladder, which could arguably be described as rule bending, in the hope of improving the on-field product.
Taking the demands and challenges placed on the shoulders of the men and women doing what is most often a thankless job into consideration, why, oh why must they sprint across a field to get to the right end of a field to squint at a giant stadium TV to view the sport’s most precarious incidents when the TMO comes into play?
Furthermore, the varying size, placing (partially blocked by walking fans in one or two stadiums) and quality of these displays are truly baffling. Whether you're watching on your TV, laptop, tablet or phone, you're pretty much guaranteed to have a far superior view of the footage referees are supposed to be adjudicating over. This can surely only be described as a gaping flaw in the matchday process. An injustice to our referees who must endure criticism from commentators and punters alike.
This is where football, love it or hate it, comes into play. The comparison between football (soccer) and rugby is usually reserved for criticism and snide comments from both parties, especially in the northern hemisphere. Football’s belated and somewhat reluctant embrace of video replay technology has immediately ruled out the vision issue that is quietly plaguing rugby’s referees. While Nigel Owens and Wayne Barnes are craning their necks to get sight of the pixelated screen, often shielding their eyes from the sun, their footballing counterparts are permitted their own private screen on the sidelines. With a sun visor around it!
That is not to say football's VAR (video assistant referee) is flawless. One has only to delve into the footballing Twittersphere to see many still hold vehement disdain towards it. But when the biggest sport in the world is doing something so right, it would be madness not to attempt to adopt and adapt. Just ask last Saturday's Champions Cup final referee Jerome Garces. In the absence of a main stadium screen at St James’ Park in Newcastle, the Frenchman was permitted a personal screen on the sidelines and while it wasn't quite the same quality as the screens afforded the top football referees, it was a marked improvement.
The biggest event of the rugby calendar is looming and it's set to be the closely contested World Cup in memory. For the sake of the tournament and the continued improvement of facilities afforded the men and women with the whistle, there can be no doubt that World Rugby should be looking to embrace the glaring flaw in the TMO system and follow football's lead.