France won their quarterfinal match against New Zealand on the back of a scintillating try that included a forward pass between Frederic Michalak and Yannick Jauzion. The pass was blatant to the millions of fans watching on television but was missed by referee Wayne Barnes and his two touch judges. Similarly, Fiji came within a whisker of scoring a game-changing try against the Springboks in the quarterfinals thanks to a pass that travelled metres forward but was inexplicably ignored by the referee.
Mistakes like these can end player and manager careers and embarrass the referee, but they can be corrected by giving the television match official more power and giving teams the opportunity to appeal decisions.
Being a top-level referee has to be one of the toughest jobs in the world. In an average match a referee is called on to make hundreds of decisions. It is unfair to expect him to get all of them right, especially with the frenetic pace of the modern game. We should be giving him the tools and assistance to make those decisions accurately and help him control the pace, flow and discipline of a match — which is ultimately the referee’s job. It is ridiculous to have a situation where television viewers can know within seconds whether a referee’s call was wrong while the referee himself remains oblivious.
There are a few arguments against using replay technology in rugby matches — the primary one being that it would interfere with the flow of a match. This could be negated by only using replays in dead-ball situations, like adjudicating whether a try has been scored or determining whether a yellow-card offence has taken place.
We already send difficult try decisions to the TMO — what harm could there be in letting him check all tries for infringements such as obstruction and forward passes? It would not add any discernable time on to a match and I cannot imagine any fan being against it if it resulted in more accurate decisions. The same could be said for disciplinary situations where the referee often only picks up the retaliation for an infringement. The TMO could quickly check what actually happened and make recommendations based on that. Anything that would result on players being punished on the field instead of being cited later would be welcomed by fans.
A rugby referee’s decision is sacrosanct and respected on the field, a blessing when compared with the thuggery and intimidation that normally greets referee decisions in football. I think that we need to find a way for captains to appeal decisions that do not belittle the referee’s authority. I suggest taking a leaf from American football, where the coach is allowed four challenges during a match. Four is probably too many for a rugby match, but allowing a captain one appeal every half would probably help overturn some of the more injudicious rulings.
It’s not hard to imagine a 2019 World Cup that would have microchip-enabled rugby balls that instantly flag forward passes and knock-ons, and player and referee cameras that would let us enjoy and experience the game from their point of view. Until that happens, we should be embracing our current technology and using it to ensure that matches are won by superior opponents and not by bad refereeing.