WHO referees rugby matches these days? The obvious answer is whichever gobby scrum-half yaks loudest into the referee’s ear. But Friday evening’s World Cup opener threw up another, more worrying answer. When England beat Fiji, whoever picked the ITV replay feed for the big screens at Twickenham refereed it. Well, one small part of it.
With the game still very much in the balance, former Glasgow favourite Niko Matawalu took off like a scalded cat down the right wing after a scrum had obligingly wheeled to open up the short side. Johnny May eventually chased him down, full-back Mike Brown was covering across, and all three men went over the line in one tumbling trio of arms, legs and torsos.
The man with the whistle Jaco Peyper blew for a try and Fiji were celebrating what was surely going to be their solo score of the entire tournament. The celebrations proved premature.
The big screens at Twickenham take the ITV World feed and they showed a slow motion action replay of the moment Matawalu scored, which happened to show that the Fijian scrum-half had not scored. He dropped the ball in the act of placing it on the line, possibly nudged by May’s arm. Peyper had already awarded the try when the replays were screened. He did not appear to request the replays. He was confident the score was good. He was wrong and when he saw the replay he changed his decision, chalking off the try.
Referees make mistakes and if they use technology to correct them then why argue?
The answer is that it sets a bad precedent. Firstly a referee changing his mind after awarding a try is surely bad refereeing. Secondly the system of which replays are screened is obviously open to abuse.
The ITV director on the day was a man by the name of John Watts who is hugely respected in the field and very experienced but, just to complicate matters, he doesn’t choose the replays, just the live feed. A team of video tape (VT) experts keep an eye on all the camera feeds and when the play stops for whatever reason Watts will whistle up replays which are provided by staff inside a parked ITV bus outside the stadium. The nameless VT bloke may have noticed that Matawalu spilled the ball, Watts would have had no idea until he saw it on screen.
Video replays are not going away. They are an important part of the entertainment in a big arena and it’s no use demanding the referee/linesman keep up with the action. Peyper is no slouch but no official is going to match Matawalu in full stride, at least not until Usain Bolt hangs up his spikes.
The real question is how did World Rugby allow this area of confusion to fester? How did they have no plan, no guidelines, why did they not issues protocols to referees or TMOs: go to video for every try if you don’t personally witness the ball being grounded, just to be safe. In fact, the TMO should have had a look at the Matawalu grounding and warned Peyper to hold fire.
World Rugby has no excuse for not anticipating this very eventuality. They had due warning last year.
In the 2014 Six Nations, Stuart Hogg earned a yellow card for a late tackle on Dan Biggar. The referee looked at the video evidence on the big screen in the Millennium Stadium which, I am told, is controlled by the WRU itself, and upped the sanction to red. It is not clear that the referee in question, Jerome Garces, requested the replay or simply witnessed it before brandishing red. Once again we got the right outcome but for the wrong reasons.
Returning to the Fiji match the point is that it is perfectly possible to envisage a situation in which the roles were reversed and an England player failed to ground the ball properly. An unscrupulous or overly patriotic VT grunt could decide not to push the footage that showed the knock on to the match director and no one would be any the wiser.
To return to the original question, we now have an indiscriminate number of referees, one with a whistle, two running touch, one TMO (Peyper insisted on going “upstairs” for things that had occurred under his nose), and then a host of nameless VTs who decide what replays are worth showing.
Had that try stood it would surely have been a very different game of rugby so it’s time we have crystal clear rules on who, exactly, influences the awarding of them.