17 Nov 2023

Rugby: Imagine, if you will, a world without TMOs

12:30 pm on 17 November 2023
Referee Wayne Barnes watches a TMO Review with Assistant Referee James Doleman and Assistant Referee Angus Gardner during the Rugby World Cup France 2023.

Referee Wayne Barnes watches a TMO Review with Assistant Referee James Doleman and Assistant Referee Angus Gardner during the Rugby World Cup France 2023. Photo: Stu Forster

Analysis - As the fallout from the Rugby World final continues to contaminate the sport's atmosphere and discourse, a particular narrative has stuck out above the rest: that the television match official (TMO)'s role should not only be curbed but eliminated completely.

Problem is, that's easier said than done. In fact, it may well be impossible.

The most annoying thing about the Springboks' hard-fought 12-11 win over the All Blacks in Paris earlier this month is the perception that fans from this part of the world are mostly thinking the All Blacks were robbed. While that's true of some fans blinded with rage, it feels like the majority simply were surprised that the previously underperforming team were even there at all, and are upset that the game itself wasn't that good to watch*.

The actual biggest gripe really seems to be revolving around the difference between the two most important games the All Blacks played. The final, a tight affair that more often than not had the tension interrupted by the TMO chiming in. Compare that the pulsating quarter-final against Ireland, which showcased the best of test rugby: long range tries, smart and effective defence, and a nail-biting finish.

Ben O'Keeffe (L) and Angus Gardner (R)

Ben O'Keeffe (L) and Angus Gardner (R) Photo: Photosport

Ironically, both games were controlled by the same referee, Wayne Barnes. And, his TMO for the quarter-final had quite an impact in that one, too. The 28-24 All Black victory was achieved despite having Aaron Smith sent to the bin, after a typically lengthy deliberation between all four officials.

So it seems you can have one of the best test matches to watch and one of the (arguably) worst, under the same circumstances. It's not like getting rid of the TMO is going to change that much, given that this sort of thing happened well before it got introduced anyway.

This isn't a defence of the TMO system. It's clearly flawed in a way only rugby union could have concocted - specifically, they saw what rugby league had done and had to make it sufficiently different and therefore more confusing and unentertaining.

No one in their right mind would have originally thought that a group of men standing on a field having a long, legal conversation with one another would make for compelling viewing, but the wheels had been put in motion for this a long time ago.

The issue though is that if you were to get rid of the TMO, what would happen next? It's certainly not like they're going to strip back TV coverage so we don't get to see the mistakes, and even then, you don't need a 4K slow motion close-up to notice them anyway.

So really, the critique of the likes of Barnes and his crew probably wouldn't be abated at all. If anything, it'd probably be worse. This genie can't be put back in the bottle, however, a more accurate wish-making analogy is the story of the cursed monkey paw and its moral to be careful what you wish for - because that's how we got here in the first place.

An actually solvable issue is the standardisation of the procedure itself. It's a long way from the NPC to the World Cup but since both were on at the same time, they presented a muddied picture as to how things are done at different levels.

In test matches the TMO has full control of the replays, in other matches they are relying on the local broadcaster to do the work for them. That means some decisions are simply down to whether or not a replay is shown or even if a camera is in the right spot, which is somewhat forgivable due to just how much things like that cost. But it makes for an entirely confusing product.

So what is the answer? Probably just changing the rules so that it doesn't need a committee meeting to get a decision, for a start, then empower the referees or the TMO to take sole charge of the process. Because the person upstairs isn't going anywhere, so let's make sure they're actually helping the game rather than hindering it.

*I am entirely aware that for South Africans, it probably was very good to watch.

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