Questions have been raised over the frequency and duration of TMO referrals under the expanded IRB protocols. Is there a solution?
There seems to be a lot more referring than refereeing going on in elite rugby these days. With the expanded remit of the Television Match Official, officials are "going upstairs" more and more, and taking longer and longer to do so. It's something of a vicious circle for rugby's top administrators: there is uproar when a referee makes a mistake, but grumblings of disquiet when the TMO is used repeatedly. The solution lies somewhere in between.
Fundamentally, the TMO is an important and positive aspect of the modern game. Professional rugby matches often hinge on minute margins, with the consequences of victory or defeat massive by contrast; all the more so in tournaments like the Heineken Cup.
Referees are under huge pressure to get decisions right; it's imperative that matches are not affected - let alone decided - by an incorrect call, and equally vital that teams gain in-game benefit from their opponents' transgressions. Hardly surprising, then, that some officials are tempted to go upstairs where even a modicum of doubt exists.
But this isn't refereeing. Second only to their duty of care for the players, the referee's primary role is that of a decision maker. The TMO is there as a back-up; a support mechanism for incidents where officials can't be sure of the correct course of action. It's an insurance policy rather than an arbitrator's first port of call.
The problems surface, though, when referees become frightened of acting decisively; shirking the responsibility for a simple ruling. This is outright over-reliance, and it should be causing concern to the IRB and their referees' manager Joel Jutge.
Saturday's clash at Allianz Park between Saracens and Connacht showcased the most ludicrous example of this in action. Referee Leighton Hodges checked with his TMO (Gareth Simmonds) after visiting prop Nathan White had liberally applied his studs to the upper body and face of Brad Barritt. There followed a baffling series of exchanges, where both Hodges and Simmonds bounced questions off one another in an embarrassing show of buck-passing.
Everyone watching the big screen replays on the pitch, in the stands and from their living rooms could see "clear and obvious" contact between White's boot and Barritt's cheek. The fact that Ospreys lock Ian Evans had seen red the night before for a stamp on the face of an opponent undoubtedly played a part in the reluctance of the officials. Neither referee nor TMO wanted to make that call, and in the end made the wrong one - White was sin-binned rather than sent off.
Sadly, this sort of back-and-forth interaction is indicative of the way elite officiating is headed. The net result? Minutes are wasted, supporters grow impatient, and players inevitably start to lose confidence in the referee and his authority. That is dangerous ground; particularly where foul play is concerned - individuals may take the law into their own hands if they feel the referee does not have his finger on the pulse.
And though it is a bugbear of many spectators; it's a pain in the posterior for those players too. They don't want to spend minutes at a time standing in the cold while officials ponder what everyone else can see.
Statistics from last year's Rugby Championship - the first major tournament to fall under the jurisdiction of the expanded TMO protocols - published by the IRB showed that there were 34 referrals in total. That's 26 more than there were in 2012, and 29 more than 2011 (though this was before the inclusion of Argentina in the tournament, ergo less matches were played).
That's a big increase, and it can cause frustrating disruptions during play, with games breaking up more often and lasting longer as a result.
So how do we arrest this slide towards over-reliance on technology and dearth of decision-making without allowing officiating errors alter games? Imagine the outcry from fans if the IRB restricted TMO usage, and an error was made by a referee against their team. Suppose we revert to the original, more finely-focussed protocol, and a knock-on or infringement from a previous phase of play was not reviewed?
Well, this is sure to be an unpopular view, but I believe that to be a price worth paying - unless, of course, the IRB and its unions can coach referees away from this tendency to check everything under the sun.
For their part, referees put in a tremendous amount of work to better themselves, their knowledge and their application of the laws. Mistakes will happen - we're dealing with people not computers - but Jutge and his elite panel are striving for consistency; something they have rightly identified as a problem. We need to place more faith in their capabilities, and understand that omnipotent precision is impossible.
Some will ask why we should accept errors when the stakes are so high, but which would they rather have? A culture where many referees are afraid to do their jobs and make decisions, to the detriment of the game, or one where we encourage - potentially through restrictive measures - them to take responsibility, and check only what they and their assistants are unsure of?
Perhaps admitting mistakes happen, and that robotic, across-the-board flawlessness is unrealistic is too cavalier an attitude to adopt in the hyper-modern sphere of elite rugby. I'd argue the sport should be mature enough to realise that no amount of protocol can wipe out such faults.
In the end, it boils down to one question: do we want fairness or perfection from our referees? That's a question only the IRB can answer, but I certainly know which I'd prefer.
By Jamie Lyall