Rugby shows the way as Swarbrick blunder leads to calls for video technology


Nigel Owens
Welshman Nigel Owens has gained a reputation as one of the more personable referees in world sport

The final round of Six Nations fixtures, or “Super Saturday” as it will now be remembered, brought rugby fans a thrilling finale to a fiercely contested RBS Six Nations competition. Rugby took centre stage on the BBC as fans watched each game in frenzied excitement as the destination of the coveted trophy changed repeatedly thanks to the incredible scorelines being recorded across Europe. For Wales, Ireland and England, every single point scored in each game was of huge significance for their hopes of glory. Eventually, Ireland prevailed in dramatic circumstances, as England were unable to win their game by the 27-point margin they required. However, once the dust settled and Wales and England had the opportunity to reflect on what might’ve been, both could blame many things for their failures, but the referee would not be one of them.

In each game when a pivotal decision had to be made, the referee made the correct call. Despite the excellent standard of rugby referees, this was not purely because of their skill and management of the game. Rather it was because they were assisted by a TMO (television match official). By observing the replay footage and communicating with the on-field referee, the TMO specifically answers the exact questions that the referee has regarding the incident to ensure the correct decision is made. As a result, the margin for error in key decisions is sharply reduced, as human uncertainty is put at ease by undisputable evidence provided by technology. On Saturday, this system was once again vindicated as it ensured that human error did not play a part in the destination of the Six Nations trophy.

On the same day, in a Premier League match between Manchester City and West Brom, the story could not have been more different. In the second minute, City striker Wilfred Bony was clumsily taken down by West Brom’s last defender, Craig Dawson. The play continued for several more seconds but Bony’s advance was then halted by a challenge from Gareth McAuley. With Bony’s clear goalscoring opportunity denied, a sending off was inevitable. However when Neil Swarbick brandished his red card, it was McAuley who was dismissed, not the guilty Dawson. As the commentators tried to make sense of the appalling decision and Tony Pulis raged on the touchline, football once again found itself in a ridiculous situation in which a referee would once again be castigated all over the Sunday back-pages for making a dreadful error of judgement. Unlike those refereeing at Rome, Murrayfield or Twickenham, there was no TMO to spare their blushes. Once again the question arises, would a TMO benefit football?

It has been an annus horriblis for Premier League referees. Nearly every referee on the league roster has been lambasted for making a shocking decision; whether that be missing dangerous tackles, wrongly booking players for diving or on more than one occasion, inexplicably sending the wrong player off. Referees have become more and more beleaguered from the fury of wronged managers and fans from their mistakes, while the media fuels the fire. There is a strong argument to suggest that Premier League referees are not up to standard, whether that be in terms of knowledge of the laws of the game or general fitness and that an overhaul is needed. However, it is becoming more and more apparent that despite these faults, referees are simply not getting enough help in making these important decisions.

It is easy for fans and pundits to slander referees from their comfortable positions, where they are gifted a plethora of slow motion replays from a variety of camera angles of in-game incidents. Yet, wouldn’t things be dramatically different if football referees had even a modicum of that ability to review as seen in rugby? Rugby has proven that the working relationship between a TMO and an on-field referee can operate smoothly with minimal delay with the overriding benefit of getting key decisions correct. There is clear communication between the officials and any issues of contention are definitively resolved by the effective review of replays. This technology does not undermine the referee’s authority. Video replay reviews are not the precursor to a future of automated refereeing in these sporting fixtures. Rather they are like a crash helmet; they may not need to be used but when they are needed, it is good to know they are there.

Mark Clattenburg is widely considered the best referee in England

As with so many issues within the game, football is dragging its feet in embracing technology as a helpful aid to the game and instead persevering with a flawed system to its detriment. These mistakes are becoming more and more frequent and are having far too much significance in the outcome of fixtures which may ultimately affect a team’s title challenge, European hopes or relegation survival. It seems laughable but this issue has all the hallmarks of the great goal-line technology debacle.  For years, FIFA doggedly resisted the numerous calls for the technology to be enforced after a series of high profile incidents, citing cost and practicality as excuses. However once they gave in and goal line technology was introduced, that once thorny issue has now been all but eradicated from the game.

The installation of goal-line technology entailed significant financial cost to ensure that each Premier League ground was equipped with the necessary system so that it could be put into effect. However, the same excuse can hardly be viable for not implementing a TMO system similar to rugby. With English football now a global phenomenon, stadiums are cluttered with dozens of cameras from many international broadcasters, covering all angles and areas of the pitch. With all of this in place, how difficult can it be to designate responsibility to an off-field official to survey replays of controversial incidents and relay his close up perspective to an uncertain referee? Surely it would solve so many problems and provide hapless referees with some much needed assistance? The rugby this weekend was celebrated for the rugby that was played and that the responsibility for the result squarely rested on the actions of the players. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could say that every week about games in the Premier League?

Photographs: wikipedia

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