Enjoy the fallibilities of the referee while it lasts


England v France. Craig Joubert: croissant-hating anti-French ref (with a French sounding surname), or a top official who, maybe, got some decisions wrong on the day?

The sensible non-partisan view is that he probably got a couple of big calls wrong (Vunipola hands in the ruck and the Tuilagi try). Now take a step back and ask what percentage of all the decisions he makes during a game are correct (90%, 95%, more?) and how many people on the planet could do a better job? Anyway, it probably all evens out at the end of the day, doesn’t it?

The path to ensuring a “better job” is an interesting one: the development of referees is an area in which the IRB and country governing bodies from the elite / professional level right down to grass roots have invested much time and effort in recent years. At elite level, to continue the improvement in accuracy, this path increasingly leads to the in-match support of the TMO. The drive to ensure correct decisions, especially match-deciding critical incidents means the use of technology will probably continue and with it the dramatic but often disruptive impact to the flow of the game.

Extended TMO powers are currently being trialled in various competitions across the globe (but NOT the Six Nations yet). Here is a summary of what is being trialled in addition to the existing remit of the TMO:

– When match officials are unsure whether foul play has occurred anywhere on the field or in-goal
– When match officials believe there may have been an infringement by the team that scored a try
– When match officials believe a try was prevented by an infringement (knock-ons, forward passes, player in touch, off-sides, obstructions, etc…)
– To confirm the success or otherwise of kicks at goal

How does the TMO adjudicate?

– When asked to intervene by the referee (except for incidents of significant foul play where the TMO can ask the referee to stop the game)
– Referrals can now go back to the previous restart, i.e. penalty kick, free kick, lineout, scrum, kick-off
– If it is not clear, the TMO is to advise there is no clear evidence and the referee will need to make a decision
– TMO to advise on the type of infringement, the recommended sanction and where play is to restart
– TMOs can be advised on infringements by the team that scored or touched down, as well as if a try has been prevented from being scored
– If there is doubt as to whether the try would have been scored the TMO must then advise the appropriate sanction
– If foul play is referred, the TMO is to make recommendations as to the appropriate sanctions, as an assistant referee can currently do.

So the onus is still on the referee to consult the TMO, except for incidents of foul play where he can intervene. The point I have highlighted in bold has probably raised most eyebrows – it is not uncommon in the modern game for there to be as many as 15 or 20 phases of play. However, further to the various trials that have been taking place, the proposal in place to extend the TMO powers to a wider domestic and international arena from next season sensibly limits this to just two phases of play (as trialled in South Africa compared to the “previous restart” that has been trialled in the Aviva Premiership).

So, a good thing overall? On the one hand it would have probably made a difference in the Tuilagi try, should the referee have chosen to consult the TMO (remember, the TMO could not have “prompted” the referee). But then consider the Vunipola ruck infringement – it would have made no difference as the referee would have been powerless in the context of the remit of how he can use the TMO (no foul play and nothing in that instance was in the act of or resulted in the scoring of a try). So there is EVEN an argument to go a step further in making use of the TMO in more than just try-scoring situations.

In sport, there have always been mixed opinions over the merits of technology. In tennis and cricket (and now goal line technology in football), the introduction of “Hawkeye” technology is still controversial. Similarly, rugby must consider the balance between getting every decision correct and the spirit and flow of the game. Like it or loathe it, as the game becomes increasingly professional and as new technologies are developed the current experiment to extend TMO powers will be here to stay and, in all likelihood, will eventually expand further. Might we eventually see teams being given a set number of “appeals” to the referee, as we see in tennis? Might we have a TMO officiating the scrum in some capacity?

I have my own opinion and I quite like the fallibility and non-robotic nature of the referee or umpire in sport (indeed, I believe it is an inherent quality of “sport” itself). So spare a thought for the ref, he’s only human and we should love him for it… while we still can.

By Will Thomas

14 thoughts on “Enjoy the fallibilities of the referee while it lasts

  1. I approve of the TMO having extended powers but…

    I don’t agree he should be able to notify the referee to stop the game for serious foul play. This is why we have a citing commission. The TMO should simply record it, and become a witness at the citing hearing.

    2 plays is about right for try scoring/preventing. Anything further gives a larger amount of footage for the TMO to look through and more time. (More time is fine if I’m going to the loo or buying a beer, but generally no.)

    The TMO should be a referee, and subsequently all match day officials will be qualified current referees. Laws will be understood, and interpretation of the passage of play will be clearer.

    All referees have a hard time. There seems to be more and more gamesmanship going on at top flight level, with players appealing, requesting cards etc. We need to hear more of the likes of Nigel Owens saying “I’m the referee” and “This is not soccer” and more RFU sanctions on coaches that criticise the match day officials. There are steps there for coaches to act in an official capacity, with regards to feedback, this needs to be used and the RFU and IRB need to act accordingly.

  2. I think there needs to be more consistency and stricter guidelines for referees. And quit changing the rules of the game every season!Rugby remains the one sport where the interpretation of rules between hemispheres and referees varies too much, and the officials therefore seem to have too much influence on results. But the issue in rugby is that this problem is only made worse by cinluding more technology. Players are always pushing the boundaries on the rules and it’s probably possible to pick up on an infringement somewhere in the play for 50% of all tries. On the other hand cricket rules are clear cut and the only real issue is accuracy of technology. Why not keep it simple for rugby and only use technology for grounding or being in touch.

  3. With reference to the probable success rate of Joubert at 90-95%, it is worth pondering how this compares with the players. Most players would probably jump at an error/mistake/wrong decision rate of only 10%

  4. I’m not saying I have a better way of evaluating refereeing but I’m not sure that saying X got 90% of the calls correct is the right way to look at things though. Some calls and infringements have a bigger impact on games than others. Look at the Ire-Scotland game, Grant’s sin-binning was harsh, yet that tackle in the air later on was much more serious.

    Have a read of this article:

    It’s clearly written by someone who’s unhappy with the result, they probably backed France to win, but regardless, the influence of Joubert on the outcome of the match is staggering. 50/50 calls are one thing, but Farrell’s elbow of Parra happened right in front of Joubert and he did nothing!

    1. Farrell’s elbow was the least dubious of those decisions, IMO. Parra is a bit of a play-actor, let’s be honest, and Farrell barely touched him.

      The other calls are worrying though. When you watch them in a row like that it doesn’t look great for Joubert. That said, England had 12 penalties to France’s 11, and there are always two sides to every story. It would be good to see an analysis of the penalties against England, and see if they are any less dubious. I appreciate that is unlikely to happen though because as you say, the author seems to have something personal invested in the game!

      1. Agreed, one from an English perspective would be great to have too.

        Nevertheless, were I French, I’d be demanding an inquiry, esp given the RWC final.

        1. Too right.

          I’d give the guy the benefit of doubt if it weren’t for the RWC final, where he screwed France through and through.

          Some of the decisions last week end were baffling.

          I have no time for the theatrics of Parra, but at the very least it’s an obstruction and it warrants a penalty.

          The last one he gives against Fritz, who is contesting on his feet while Ashton is isolated and holds on to the ball on the ground is an absolute joke.

      2. I read that article and thought a lot of what he saw as one thing could be seen as quite something else. Very much viewing it through French-tinted spectacles.

        Farell touched Parra not so much with his elbow as his upper arm and even then he barely brushed him. Parra would have had a card for diving had it been football.

        As Jamie says, it would be interesting to do a similar analysis of the penalties given against England. For example, he doesn’t mention the clear trip on Farrell by Picamoles that wasn’t given

        1. Yes, had forgotten about the trip in the excitement of the win! Have to say that when I was watching live I thought what on earth has just happened to the England player (didn’t realise it was Farrell at the time)as it looked like he had been poleaxed. That was with a camera swinging away from the trip, so Joubert must have seen something and yet did nothing about it. I don’t suppose this counts, but is a bad trip a citing offence?

          1. The video’s been removed now, due to copyright claims by ‘Six Nations Rugby Limited’.


          2. B*st*rd copyright laws

            Tripping is certainly cite-able

            Anyone else remember Betsen on Stuart Abbott?

    2. Exactly. Someone like Wayne Barnes doesn’t make a huge number of mistakes per se. He’s just an incometant and corrupt blaggard, that blows entire games on pivotal decisions. It’s got nothing to do with %’s…

  5. Well personally I quite like how the balance is now. Rugby players often have to make infringements, and do it extremely slyly. If they can avoid the ref seeing them, there should be no problem. Only TV can see these infringements on the rules. The game would be boring if everything was called up by TMO. I think it’s perfect now, as its mainly used to see if a try has been scored, or could have been scored

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