Loose Pass: When science meets TMOs, the Johnny Sexton problem and drafts

Lawrence Nolan
Loose Pass image 13June 2023.jpg

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with another highly probable try that wasn’t, the Johnny Sexton problem and drafts…

When science meets TMOs

Loose Pass was also one of the columnists which, more than once, lamented both the amount of time TMOs often took to get to their decisions and the amount of responsibility that often fell onto their eyes and video-operating fingers.

Loose Pass also insisted that referees should make a call and only have TMOs overturn it if it is clearly and obviously wrong.

So for us to bang on about this is possibly a little rich, but we’ll go there anyway, as this is not the first time your correspondent has felt compelled to point this one out: the outcome of the process regarding Ardie Savea’s non-try on Saturday was very wrong.

The problem is, it was wrong because the officials followed the protocols. Nic Berry was perfectly within his rights to decide he had not seen a try scored. TMO Brett Cronan’s huge dilemma was to decide whether the evidence to the contrary was clear and obvious. The critical replay moment was unfortunately obscured by a substantial pair of Hurricane thighs. By the time said thighs had rumbled off to the left, the ball was barely visible. Clear and obvious it was not.

And yet, as with earlier in the season, James Lowe’s toecap, as with a try for Saracens a fortnight ago (which was correctly awarded), there was a freeze-frame moment when the pointy end of the ball was obscured from view by the turf in front of it. Or more to the point, if you carried on the dimensions of the ball as they would have carried on into the shadows created by the pile of bodies, the pointy part would clearly be touching the turf.

No, not necessarily clear and obvious, and we cannot, in the light of what they are instructed, necessarily point fingers at the officials for the decision. But the problem is that the only other explanations for the picture as described above defy reasonably well-proven laws of time, space and physics. The burden of proof there has been so well-established that we feel it ought to trump World Rugby’s ‘clear and obvious’ protocols. At some point – and as was correctly applied in the Premiership final – the learnings of science and reasonable probability need to be superior to just clear and obvious.

Johnny Sexton’s suspension problem

The rumours around Johnny Sexton’s likely ban for his verbal tirade at Jaco Peyper and co. continue to proliferate, ranging between a slap on the wrist and a fine, to a few years’ solitary exile on Craggy Island. A lot, it seems, will hinge on how ‘intimidating’ his behaviour was. We’ll see what transpires.

Precedent suggests the World Cup itself will not be affected. If Pau coach Sebastian Piqueronies can get away with a 10-week ban for physically grabbing a referee (it was the way he let go that was probably the most damning part of it all, and even then he was only actually suspended for threatening words and actions) then Sexton will likely get less.

But again, the arbitrary nature of the suspension system may come into play. Piqueronies missed many matches because of the 10-week suspension. Ten weeks for Sexton would see him miss a couple of warm-up matches. Eight, if handed out now, would see him miss none at all. It would be a statement punishment, but with barely lip service effect.

Suspensions need to be made in matches, not weeks, while matches need to be tailored to which team the suspended player would have reasonably played in. Only then will Sexton be held to account for some really poor behaviour.

The big reset

Global fixture calendars. An Anglo-Welsh league. Salary caps. Inter-regional competition expansion.

The ideas for the unification and improvement of rugby’s landscape continue to proliferate as the sport becomes more and more desperate to pull itself coherently out of the over-indebted and fragmented mess that professionalism has created.

The latest suggestion has involved using a draft system such as American Football’s to allocate players throughout the Super Rugby Pacific teams.

It’s an interesting one. It certainly would render more effective the notion of a cross-border salary cap within competitions, which is all but unworkable at the moment, while it would certainly prohibit teams from hoarding talent and it would allow players, in all practical probability, to play overseas and retain their international status without any of these arbitrary ‘exceptional circumstances’ or cap rules.

The flaw as we see it is that you’d need to build a franchise structure similar to the NFL’s as well, where the franchises all operate under the regulatory guidance and administration of the tournament body/national unions involved. They’d have to team up.

Could it also be a solution in England and Wales – even Scotland as well? Stop a bidding war, stop the unsustainable short-termism among the benefactors, even out the playing field, have one governing body?

In theory, absolutely. Yet given the entrenchment of positions in various corridors of power, the propensity to sausage-swing instead of team up and the inability of many in those positions of power to run a bath, never mind a coherent competition, in practice it would be far too much a reset for most to be able to push through effectively. A shame; it has potential.

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