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What role should the TMO play in rugby? A key question for the sport

World Rugby expressed its unhappiness with the current situation in July.

IN JULY, WORLD Rugby underlined that the sport needed to redefine, or at least clarify in exact terms, how and when the television match official [TMO] is used.

“There is probably too much reliance at the moment on the TMO,” said World Rugby’s CEO, Brett Gosper.

“The feeling in the room is that we would like referees themselves to take a bit more control. That’s something that we are going to work through.”

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Pool C - New Zealand v Namibia - Olympic Stadium TMO reviews have become a common part of rugby. Source: David Davies

Just a week earlier, SANZAAR – which runs Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship – had come out with something very similar.

“The TMO protocols are clearly not working and a specific review is required in this area,” said CEO Andy Marinos. 

“SANZAAR believes the appointed referee needs to remain the key decision maker on the field and that TMO interventions only provide context to the match officials’ decision-making.”

These statements came on the back of frustrations around TMO involvements in the June Tests and Super Rugby.

There were several controversial incidents in New Zealand’s series against France, while the June Tests overall involved one additional TMO referral per game than is the norm.

The feeling within World Rugby and SANZAAR was that things had come to a head.

Before we go any further, let’s just clarify what the current TMO protocols – which are officially still in the trial phase – allow for.

In exact World Rugby terms, the TMO’s jurisdiction extends to “the adjudication of decisions when the team in possession of the ball has touched the ball down in the in-goal area and any of the match officials have a view that there was a potential infringement in the field of play with limitations.”

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Pool D - Ireland v Canada - Millennium Stadium Long waits for TMO decisions have been a frustration. Source: Mike Egerton

The TMO also has jurisdiction in “the review of potential acts of foul play or to assist in the determination of sanctions for foul play.”

So, in basic terms, the TMO is used to help decisions around teams touching the ball down in the in-goal area and foul play. 

The protocols stress that the match referee “should not be subservient to the system” and “must remain in charge of the game” as they manage the TMO process.

It’s also stressed that any information taken into consideration in TMO reviews “must be CLEAR and OBVIOUS” – those capital letters are as per the official World Rugby document.

We also know that the TMO can go back “no more than two phases” for potential infringements before tries.

A little confusingly, SANZAAR has a different trial protocol in place, whereby the match referee gives the TMO his “on-field decision” of the incident and then asks for the TMO to review the footage in that light.

“The TMO must be persuaded that the evidence is compelling before proving the on-field referee’s call wrong, and therefore overturning the call,” says SANZAAR’s protocol. 

That contrasts with World Rugby’s approach of allowing the referee to ask the TMO three questions relating to possible tries:

  • ‘Try – yes or no?’
  • ‘Can you give me a reason why I cannot award a try?’
  • ‘But for the act of foul play – probable try or no try?’

World Rugby’s feeling was that match referees had gradually veered off course with their use of the TMO, and the strong words in July were backed up by action.

England v Barbarians - Twickenham Stadium TMO referrals for technical infringements around the pitch often frustrate supporters. Source: Paul Harding

A ‘TMO Working Group’ was formed last month, involving some of the world’s top referees, a handful of currently active international head coaches, World Rugby staff and some ex-players.

Their task was to discuss how the TMO is used and the hope was that this working group could then offer recommendations to World Rugby.

The results of their discussions are not clear yet but it is expected that the recommendations will be put to World Rugby’s rugby committee before the end of this month – a year out from the World Cup.

Indeed, we are likely to see a refined TMO protocol announced before this year’s November Tests, given the need for any change in approach to be given time to bed in well before the global showcase of the sport that is the World Cup in Japan.

The issues seem rather obvious and the results of the working group discussion are likely to be based around the fact that the TMO is simply being used too often for incidents around the pitch.

Everyone can understand the need to get try-scoring decisions correct as often as possible but the frustration for many supporters, players and coaches is around the delays caused by referees and TMOs reviewing technical offences.

Referees simply cannot be expected to identify every single infringement in games, just as players and coaches cannot be expected to be completely error-free. We must accept that rugby, like everything, is imperfect and focus on the big moments.

Try-scoring and clear yellow or red card situations are what the TMO is really needed for.  

The issue of whether to move forward with SANZAAR’s ‘on-field decision’ approach for possible try-scoring, or the World Rugby protocol of three questions, is a fascinating one.

Romain Poite consults the TMO with Mathieu Raynal World Rugby wants to see referees stay in control of the TMO process. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Opinions will be mixed on this matter, but the ‘on-field decision’ system does at least ensure that the match referee is taking the leading role and backing themselves to a degree.

It will also be interesting to learn whether the working party has discussed the possibility of a TMO ‘challenge’ system – as has been suggested by All Blacks boss Steve Hansen and others.

This would essentially give captains or coaches a specific number of TMO challenges in each game. If their challenge proved to be correct, they would keep the same number of available challenges. Wrong, and they lose one.

That could potentially create a new mess, of course, and is perhaps one for consideration further down the line.

What is very obvious is that rugby needs to be far clearer around the TMO moving forward.

June showed just how much frustration the process can cause for all parties and something similar at the World Cup would be a bad look for the sport.

Watch this space.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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