‘The TMO is refereeing matches’ – Nigel Owens calls for change

Dylan Coetzee
Former international rugby referee Nigel Owens in 2020.

Former international rugby referee Nigel Owens in 2020.

Former referee Nigel Owens believes the Television Match Official (TMO) holds too much of the decision-making power in the game at the moment.

Owens shared his thoughts in his Wales Online column, where he highlighted several aspects of the game he believes needs a change on the back of a Rugby World Cup loaded with controversies around referee decision-making.

Change the way technology is used

One of the main talking points was the use of the TMO bunker. Owens acknowledged that the process had fulfilled the objective of speeding up the game but suggested it took too much power away from the referees.

“During the Rugby World Cup, I made no secret of my thoughts on the new TMO bunker. While it certainly showed how it can help to speed up games, it hardly reduced controversies or improved decision-making during the tournament and, in my opinion, ended up being used too much when the decisions should have been made by the on-field referees,” Owens wrote in his Wales Online column.

“At the moment, it feels like the TMO is refereeing matches and that is not a road that rugby should be going down. While technology has its place in the game, how it is used currently needs to change.”

Cards given because of head knocks in the tackle area was another big area of debate, with more red cards given at a World Cup than ever before, culminating in a red card for All Blacks captain Sam Cane in the final.

At different levels of the game, there have been trials of ways to reduce head injuries with England’s community game lowering the tackle height. Owens believes this is a possible solution at the professional level.

“One of those is tackle height. Now I don’t have an answer for it myself, but I know having spoken to people across the community game in England and Wales that the current law trial has been well received and has actually gone down better than many people expected. It’s certainly something that needs to be looked at in the professional game too, because at the moment it’s not in law that it’s illegal to tackle upright and players are not changing their behaviour in lowering their tackle height.”


Owens also felt the scrum was being under-officiated during the World Cup and that being more strict would result in a better contest.

“Too many scrums are not being refereed at the moment. Too many refs are playing on when the scrum is down and not dealing with the issues behind it, and the problem then just continues over and over again. They simply need to be stronger – if they can be stronger in refereeing it and in dealing with the negative scrummagers, then we will see much more of a contest at scrum time,” Owen wrote.

Elsewhere in the game, more specifically the contact point, Owens feels the right laws are in place, but it is more of a case of applying them better.

“Aside from scrums, the contact area is also key to the game. If you don’t have a solid contact area, then you’re stuck with a stop-start game with lots of penalties and absolutely no continuity.

“It’s all there in the laws of the game, but it just needs to be refereed better. You can’t deliberately collapse a ruck and players arriving at the ruck should be arriving on their feet and not diving off them. I’m not saying that everybody on the ground needs to be penalised, but certainly I think it’s an area of the game we need to improve on. If we get more players on their feet contesting the ruck then we have more space in midfield for the players to attack. This will also reduce the amount of dangerous clearouts around the dead ruck areas, when piles of bodies are on the ground.”

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