The quick and seamless nature of football's VAR system is exposing the deficiencies of rugby's TMO. We look at the lessons – for both codes – to be drawn from the World Cup
Rugby can learn from Football World Cup
THE current Football World Cup has confirmed plenty of things we already knew and one thing we certainly didn’t – the sport’s use of video technology has left rugby trailing.
In one sense, this isn’t surprising because of the sheer amount of money FIFA have thrown at it. There are 11 officials for each match. But the speed and seamlessness of football’s Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system has been really impressive, with decisions sometimes being reached so quickly that you can be almost oblivious to them.
In effect, the team of VAR officials watching matches in their Moscow studio is checking everything that happens while the game proceeds. They can intervene in four areas: goals, red cards, penalties and mistaken identity.
Sometimes a referee is seen clutching his earpiece and delaying the game briefly while the VAR officials take a look at an incident – from multiple angles. Then, far more often than not, the ref plays on.
The fear was that the VAR team would be too ‘trigger happy’. They are only meant to intervene if they spot a “clear and obvious” error and on occasions at this World Cup they have got this totally wrong.
For example, the late penalty awarded to Iran against Portugal was a disgraceful decision that cost Portugal the chance of a much easier second-round tie. VAR deemed an obvious accidental handball that the defender, jumping for the ball, could have done nothing about as worthy of another look. The ref trotted over to watch a replay on the pitchside TV and, to widespread dismay, awarded the spot-kick.
The same match saw VAR refer a mild incident involving Ronaldo, who pushed an opponent who was deliberately obstructing him. Ronaldo received a harsh yellow card.
The referee’s instinct not to award the late penalty was correct and without VAR, his initial decision would have stood.
And this is a point worth making. VAR has been responsible for getting more decisions right but it will always be subject to human error, just like rugby’s Television Match Official (TMO).
Colombia’s Wilmar Barrios should have been sent off for headbutting England’s Jordan Henderson but escaped with a booking. Harry Kane and Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic were denied penalties for blatant off-the-ball wrestling. Mexico’s Javier Hernandez controlled the ball with his arm against Sweden but no penalty resulted.
Errors will happen and you could argue it’s part of sport’s rich tapestry, although try telling that to the Serbia side who ended up losing to a last-minute Swiss goal and going out.
Rugby’s TMO system has been around far longer than VAR and our sport must be admiring the way football’s version operates without major disruption to the game, and the clear and efficient communication to the crowd via the big screens in the stadia.
Even when a ref goes to the sidelines to watch an incident on the TV, it only takes about two minutes to resume the game. If only rugby was as quick!
Instead, the oval-ball code is still blighted by too many referrals, laboured referee-TMO exchanges and excessively cautious TMOs who often watch half a dozen replays of an incident when one or two will do.
Chris Boyd, the Hurricanes coach soon arriving at Northampton, is one figure to have been left frustrated by the impact of over-zealous TMO interference. After the Canes’ game against Sunwolves in April, he said the officials “were being ultra-hard in some of their decisions, which brought the game to a stop-start.
“When the game controls the referee, rather than the other way round, you get a better result. Penalties, knock-ons, you name it. A lot of them were actually ruled upon by the man upstairs (TMO Ben Skeen) instead of (referee, Jamie) Nutbrown.”
Skeen hardly enhanced his reputation with his slow and sometimes questionable decision-making in the recent Australia-Ireland series.
Football has also got it right by not showing contentious incidents on the big screens in the stadia. That can put massive pressure on a referee, as Nigel Owens recently acknowledged.
“If you make a mistake, and it’s suddenly highlighted up on the big screen, not only do millions watching on TV at home know you’ve made a clanger, so do 85,000 inside the ground, so do the players and so do you as a referee,” said the top rugby ref.
“You’re human and there can be massive pressure in your own mind to right the wrong. But that is the absolute last thing you should do.”
Football now needs to use VAR to start punishing the cheats. The play-acting in the sport is farcical and will continue for as long as players can get away with it. If, for example, Luis Suárez pretends he has been hit on the head when we can see that didn’t happen, why not suspend him for an ensuing game?
Football will also surely introduce the Head Injury Assessment (HIA) protocol that works so well in rugby. England’s Jesse Lingard was dazed after being elbowed in the head by a Panama defender. With no system in place allowing him to be properly assessed off the field, while a temporary sub filled in for him, Lingard was put through a half-baked concussion test on the field under the gaze of an impatient referee. It was either that or take Lingard off for good.
This is not acceptable for player welfare, as TV pundit Alan Shearer pointed out. Introducing HIA might also reduce the number of players simulating a head injury – imagine if every time they went down in mock agony, they were told to leave the field for ten minutes!
Of course, the HIA rule would be abused in football, far more than has occurred in rugby. Teams would feign head injuries in order to get other players on the pitch. But it can’t be right that a concussed player is effectively encouraged to play on because there’s no proper way of assessing him.
So rugby has a lot to be proud of. Can it now borrow from football’s impressive use of technology to become a little snappier?