Richard Bath: Fans are getting fed up with TMO

I KEPT a rough and entirely unscientific log during Wales’ victory over France on Friday night. The outcome was that well over four of the 80 minutes were spent waiting for judgments from the Television Match Official (TMO). Throw in a rash of collapsed scrummages and approximately 15 per cent of the game was dead time which added little to the spectacle.

The flow of the game is being ruined as referees send more decisions upstairs to the TMO.  Picture: Getty
The flow of the game is being ruined as referees send more decisions upstairs to the TMO. Picture: Getty

The TMO system was a good idea but it’s not working, and fans are understandably getting fed up at the increasingly frequent and often ridiculously long interruptions to the game. Ditto the players: they think that it’s ruining the flow of the game and they’re right.

And if you’ve got a sense that things are getting gradually worse, then you’re spot on. In the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship last year, there were a total of 34 referrals, compared to eight in 2012 (Argentina’s first Championship) and five in 2011. That’s a remarkable increase.

Such epic degrees of delegation pale into insignificance when compared to the international between Fiji and Italy, won 37-31 by the Azzurri in Cremona before Christmas. Games involving the Italians tend to be pretty fractious, stop-start affairs, especially when playing against free-running opponents such as Fiji, but this match was completely spoiled by a constant stream of referrals as Welsh referee Leighton Hodges refused to make any decisions lest he turned out to be wrong. The result? A first half that was more like American Football and which lasted for an incredible (and incredibly dull) 59 minutes.

No doubt the issue will become increasingly prominent as the debate intensifies ahead of the May meeting of the International Rugby Board, at which a decision will be taken on whether to continue with the system of allowing TMOs to rule on anything over and above the act of scoring. For many rugby fans it’s now time to draw a line in the sand.

The first thing to acknowledge is that there is no perfect answer: whatever the IRB come up with will be criticised. Yet the game’s governing body would do well to remember that games of rugby which have a TMO are no longer a sport for the players, but a part of the entertainment industry in which rugby union needs to engage spectators and television viewers, not alienate them.

You can count the number of truly laudable views held by football’s Sepp Blatter on very few fingers, but in this regard the FIFA supremo has got a point: TMOs inevitably interrupt the flow of a game, and once you start down the TMO road it’s difficult to draw a line. Why not, for instance, go back further than two phases? Or why not bring the TMO in to adjudicate on the penalties which so often dictate which side wins (such as the scrum infringements at the Millennium Stadium which yielded so many kickable penalties on Friday)?

The single biggest problem with the TMO system as it stands is the human factor. Refs can ask for any passage of play to be scrutinised for foul play, and can look at seven aspects of the game (knock-on, forward pass, player in touch, offside, obstruction, tackling a player without the ball and double movement) when they are looking at grounding for a try or reviewing the two previous phases of play. Because refs can look at those eight areas, they do, with the number of referrals rising dramatically year on year.

Referees are normal people, and given the chance to be safe rather than sorry – especially when there’s large amounts of money and possibly their career riding on the outcome – of course they will delegate responsibility because that means they can also delegate blame. There are refs who use the system as fans would want – with JP Doyle at Murrayfield for Edinburgh and Munster’s Heineken Cup game a particularly good example of constructive use of the TMO – but all too often the use is gratuitous and annoying. Nor are TMOs perfect. There have been endless examples of patently wrong TMO decisions, many of which are seen at the ground on the big screen by enraged fans. After all, if the pundits in a relatively straightforward sport like football can’t always agree on a penalty decision after watching a replay 20 times, why would we think that a TMO in a more complicated sport and a truncated window of time could be infallible.

So, what to do? There must be a sensible halfway house, although the debate would be considerably better informed if two of the IRB’s most important TMO regulations were borne in mind. The first is that the use of the TMO must not “adversely impact upon the character of the game” and the second is that infringements must be “clear and obvious” to qualify for the TMO’s adjudication.

At the moment that character of the game is undeniably being adversely impacted, so things need to change. How about a time limit on decision (if it takes more than a minute how can it be “clear and obvious”)? Or perhaps we should follow cricket and tennis by allowing a limited number of “challenges” by each captain (say, two, as per cricket, which would have stopped Pascal Pape asking Alain Rolland to go upstairs when the French captain himself knew that he had knocked-on in the run-up to France’s disallowed try)?

Personally, I’d like the TMO to only be used if there are issues around foul play or the grounding of the ball for a try. I also think that there should be a presumption in favour of the attackers and that, as in cricket, the ref should be required to make a decision which would only be overturned by the TMO if it’s clear that the ref has made a mistake.

Rugby is difficult enough to follow at the best of times, so let’s stop making it more arcane and staccato. It’s time the men in blazers started earning their corn and reining in the TMOs, and it’s time for our referees to stand up and be counted.

Rooney pay deal will prove an £85m own-goal for desperate-to-please Moyes

DAVID Moyes rarely spends in haste, but Manchester United will certainly repent at leisure when it comes to Wayne Rooney’s five-and-a-half-year contract.

Costing £300,000 a week (can it really be fewer than 20 years since Chris Sutton became Britain’s first £10,000 a week player?), the deal will net Rooney £85m. This for a 28-year-old player who lies joint ninth in the Premiership goalscoring table (although he is joint top of the Premiership’s leaderboard for assists).

Even more incredibly, Rooney, right, is also said to be guaranteed a season as skipper and will apparently have a say in transfer dealings. All this for a player for whom United have talented replacements in the attacking midfield role he will soon assume, and who, because he won’t countenance playing abroad, had only one other suitor – Chelsea.

Moyes has presented this as a move which strengthens United, but it is exactly the opposite.

It is a short-term PR puff which saddles a club that has earned its pre-eminence through a bold reliance on youth with a hugely expensive – and disruptive – ageing player whose goalscoring prowess is patently waning.

Rather than demonstrate resilience and strength, spending the best part of £100m on Rooney smacks of desperation. The only question is how long it will take before it is perceived as a massive blunder.