There's a lot more to being a Television Match Official than meets the eye. Rowan Kitt discusses the intricacies of the role and why disciplinary panels rattle his cage


Being a TMO (Television Match Official) is easy, right? Just watch a replay of an incident and tell the referee what happened.

Wrong! A chat with the RFU’s Rowan Kitt, one of the best TMOs in the business, sheds a whole new light on the role of the match official who gets no credit when things go well and a heap of blame when things go askew. “You’re basically the lowest of the low,” says Kitt. We’re not sure if he’s joking.

Let’s start with the fundamentals. What can a TMO intervene for? “We can come in for virtually anything. But it’s about the quantity and quality of information,” says Kitt, who has handled more than 300 professional games, including 50 Tier One Internationals.

“So foul play that hasn’t been seen, I might say ‘neck roll by six black’ seamlessly to the referee. Restarts. Was it in touch? Or was it a 22 drop-out? Forward passes, within two phases of a try. Basically if the referee asks you a question you answer it.

“Technically I can come in for blatant knock-ons which everybody can see on the TV, and which lose us credibility as a match official team if we don’t pick them up. But what we’ve said is really it’s got to be a match-defining decision; if it’s 14-12 in the last minute and the ref has given it the wrong way, the TMO can save the day.

TMO Rowan Kitt at Japan v Italy

Kitt on TMO duty at a Japan v Italy International in 2018

“Some things you’re going to have to wear because otherwise you could be refereeing the whole game. There were some bad examples last season where a TMO broke the protocol early on and then the referee (Karl Dickson being one example) hasn’t trusted them later, and they’ve missed a big red card because the TMO couldn’t get the referee to look at it.”

Kitt says the goalposts are always changing as World Rugby strives to improve the protocols and create a more enjoyable game. “Our big buzzword is momentum. In all phases of the game. So no lineout huddles. Quickly set scrums. Shorter TMO referrals, where possible.”

We cite the no-arms tackle by Albert Tuisue at Bath that saw referee Tom Foley brandish a yellow card on TMO Kitt’s say-so. “Yeah, that’s been a big thing we’ve tried to do. We want refs to give a yellow card without referring it. Like a deliberate knock-on or even a high tackle, let’s give it and then if it’s clearly wrong the TMO will sweep up.

Rowan Kitt

Kitt at a 2019 World Cup photo call (Getty Images)

“But if we bring things to the referee’s attention which we could do without, that is not the definition of a good TMO. So you’re between a rock and a hard place. That’s where game sense matters. You can almost sense what the referee needs at that time because you know them so well.”

Kitt’s love for the sport originates from a rugby-obsessed grandfather and mother. A former fly-half, he played at King’s School Worcester, Durham University and collegiate rugby at Cambridge. He has also played for Pershore, his home club near Worcester, and for Swanage & Wareham when he was teaching at Bryanston in Dorset.

“I went to Charterhouse in about 1995. I didn’t have time to play there, so everybody said try the whistle. The very first game that I refereed was at Guildford & Godalming, so I was with Metropolitan & Surrey Society for a year or so and then London Society and then you move up. I joined the national panel in about 2000.

“In about 2013 they began to say ‘Ooh, you’re getting a bit slower, what about sitting in the nice warm truck (as a TMO)?’ So I jumped at it. There was virtually no training. Of course, there are no warm-up games as a TMO because there’s no TV truck, there’s no technology.

“I remember sitting in the truck with David Grashoff for a Championship play-off at Bedford. He virtually had no calls to make, nothing to say. It was one of those games. I just sat there and thought this seems pretty easy! Little did I know what was about to unfold.

“My first game as a TMO was the beginning of the 2013-14 Premiership season, Northampton v Newcastle. The referee was Dean Richards and I took what felt like four or five minutes to make a decision on a try. Luther Burrell scored and it was a really complicated one.”

A history teacher by profession, Kitt is now Fellow and Development Director at Queen’s College, Cambridge, alma mater of the great Mike Gibson. The two chat regularly.

He still referees quite a bit now, doing what he can around schools and junior clubs to stay connected to the grass roots. And he will have time for more of that this autumn after being overlooked by World Rugby for this year’s Rugby World Cup in France.

Four years ago, as part of the TMOs panel in Japan, he was probably 80 minutes away from officiating at the final. Had New Zealand beaten England in the semi-final, Wayne Barnes was pretty much nailed on to referee the final and Kitt had done all his games with him.

Match officials for RWC 2023

The 26 officials chosen for the 2023 Rugby World Cup – four of the 12 referees are English (World Rugby)

Instead, England knocked out the All Blacks, the neutral Jérôme Garcès got the gig for the final and Barnes – approaching his fifth World Cup – must wait to see if his opportunity arises at Stade de France at the end of October. Kitt easily warrants a place among the seven-strong TMO team but, as we know, politics plays a part in selection and he will not be going.

It is a shame and a waste of his experience. Could it be a result of his part in a red card issued last season to Ben Earl against London Irish which was subsequently rescinded? If so, it would be both ludicrous and inconsistent – after all, Karl Dickson is part of the World Cup referees panel despite making some huge errors.

Kitt insists he was right to advise that red card for Earl, for making contact with Tom Pearson’s head in a tackle. But he goes further.

"At the end of a match you're shattered" – Rowan Kitt on the life of a TMO

Saracens flanker Ben Earl walks off the pitch after being sent off against London Irish last season (Getty)

“I’m just a humble TMO so I’m always happy to listen to other opinions. But at the same time, when cards get rescinded or players get a ridiculously short sentence, who is making those judgements? Not referees. Not match officials. It’s maybe a solicitor or an ex-player who played 15 years ago and how are they experts?

“We’re the experts on what foul play is and why we’re giving the decisions we do. Do we make mistakes? Yes. But the Ben Earl one I would give every time. The fact that (red card) gets rescinded is just embarrassing. And I think it’s one of the big issues as to why we’re heading down the route to tackles being at waist level.

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“Because not only has this generation of players since Japan (2019) not changed their processes enough, not changed their actions enough, they’re still smashing people in the head. They are not tackling low enough. Which means we’ve got to go to this gargantuan change to waist level.”

Kitt’s favourite game as a TMO was when Ireland beat the All Blacks for the first time, Chicago 2016. “It was only the second rugby game the TV crew had filmed. And the first, USA v Maoris, was the night before. The video operator said, ‘Gee, they pass back a lot in this game!’ There were a lot of TMO referrals but we came through it. It was a great experience.”

Special memory: with Ben Whitehouse, Mathieu Raynal and Luke Pearce for Ireland v NZ in Chicago

Kitt says the language used by TMOs has been worked on “meticulously, season upon season” because how they interact with the referee, the speed and clarity of that communication, is critical. Where once a TMO might have told a ref, “Barnesy, we need to check that”, now they will say “Barnesy, I’m going to show you a forward pass.”

The origins of that change in protocol stem from a 2018 Clermont v Racing quarter-final in which Barnes chose to ignore Kitt’s suggestion for a review of a Dan Carter try-scoring pass.

“It was a huge forward pass but I opened a bit of a door which said maybe I’ll go with the referee’s decision. So after that game, we decided as a refereeing unit, around the world, to say ‘I’m going to show you a forward pass’ – no debate. Every good bit of practice, as in any walk of life, comes from bitter experience or good experience.

Clermont v Racing 2018

Clermont and Racing vie for lineout ball in the 2018 match that helped clarify TMO language (AFP/Getty)

“The worst thing about that is that it ruined a night out in Clermont! We couldn’t go to this nice restaurant we had booked.

“Jean-Pierre Romeu, the former France fly-half who became a referee manager, stormed into the changing room at the end and said, “It’s a forward pass! It’s a forward pass!” Then he took us into the Clermont fans’ tent and everybody turned round, ‘Ahh, the referees!’ One guy put a camera in our face to film us. People were still raging about it.”

Match prep starts in the week with a call with the ‘team of four’ – ref, TMO and assistant referees. There are presentations to read, clips to watch. On match day Kitt will walk the pitch and watch the warm-ups. During the game he is frantically watching every collision, every moment, via both his main stream and a second screen that has a six-second delay.

He usually hears the TV commentary – “Austin Healey is very sharp” – but once something is formally referred that’s switched off.

To an extent, he’s at the mercy of TV directors and technicians. “Sometimes you want to see the same angle again but with slow motion you can’t do that, the broadcasters have to show a different angle and then reload the original angle.

"At the end of a match you're shattered" – Rowan Kitt on the life of a TMO

Screen with envy: technology can be both a help and a hindrance for the Television Match Official

“So you could get that next angle being useless, the referee is standing there going, ‘For God’s sake, Kitty, show me the right angle!’ And it’s completely out of your hands. And then you get this thing in France, where they won’t necessarily show you foul play by French players.” A scandalous state of affairs that Rugby World has expounded on before.

“The biggest thing for me is concentration. Not miss anything for 80 minutes. And it’s mentally exhausting. At the end you just sit there and you’re shattered.

“The great feeling we do it for is being in the changing room at the end. At the European Cup final in Bilbao, a player from each side who were both Irish, Racing and Leinster, brought crates of beers in and forced the match officials to sit with them and have a few drinks. It was wonderful because they know if you do your job properly you’re going to have a good game.”

And that, ultimately, is why people like Rowan Kitt do it. It’s in the blood.

“It distills down to love of the game and the mates you make. Wanting to be the best you can be every week. It’s a bit of a drug: the anticipation before the game, the excitement of working in a team and aiming for world-class perfection.

“When you’re doing New Zealand-South Africa in Wellington it feels like a battle and those guys on the pitch trust you, innately, to be covering them. And that’s a big responsibility.

“But we’re good at de-stressing after a match, it normally involves 95 beers and a curry. We’re all rugby guys, we love our sport, we just do our bit.”

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