Ex-ref Stuart Dickinson calls for “Captain’s Challenge”

The incident that unfolded in Auckland three weeks ago, where Bismarck du Plessis was controversially yellow-carded for a monstrous but legal hit on Dan Carter, has sparked much debate throughout the game. Speculation has abounded across the rugby world as to how to resolve these contentious refereeing calls for the good of the sport, and to avoid the potential injustices teams may suffer at their hands.

While some blasted match official Romain Poite for his decision to sin-bin the Springbok hooker, who was subsequently red-carded early in the second half, others felt it was time for a different approach to deal with such game-altering occurrences.

One of those was Australian former elite referee Stuart Dickinson, who took charge of well over forty test-matches in a career spanning fourteen years at the top level.

Talking to me from his home in Brisbane, Dickinson spoke openly on the role of the TMO, and the potential to extend that involvement in the game yet further.

The Australian called for the sport to discuss implementing a “captain’s challenge” system, not dissimilar to those in place in cricket or tennis, whereby a team’s skipper is permitted a set number of opportunities per game to have incidents reviewed by the TMO.

This, he feels, would help ensure officials make the correct call when it most matters, and prevent cases such as the one that unfolded at Eden Park from impacting upon all-important test-matches. At the moment, the hollow post-match reprisals or punishments, such as the subsequent rescinding of du Plessis’ red card, come as little consolation to sides that have been affected by a divisive call.

“We spoke about this years ago,” he said. “You’d have a captain’s choice. If you have something like a forward pass, these players will know and say ‘hang on, can we have a look at that?’”

The Aussie was at pains to point out that such a review system would neither serve to undermine referees, nor impact upon their credibility in the game.

“In the heat of the battle you might get tripped up, you might not be in the best position to see something. That’s no slight on the referees,” he insisted.

“It’s just for situations like that Bismarck du Plessis incident, you can say ‘well hang on, let’s have a review of that.’ Of course, the camera angles that the referee didn’t have will show it was a fair tackle. Problem solved. It’s not a personal attack on the referee; it’s just an admission that sometimes the angle you have might not be the best one.”

The idea has been mooted by many in the weeks that have followed du Plessis’ sending off, but there have been concerns that, should it be realised, it would only add to the already frustrating amount of stoppages and breaks. This is a notion Dickinson is keen to dispel.

“You’re not looking at stopping the game any more; you’re not looking at empowering the TMO any further unless the captain’s asked – however that format looks,” he said. “You don’t want too many challenges – maybe two per game. The main thing is you want to keep that continuity but just allow it to be up the sleeve.”

Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments in favour of the ‘captain’s challenge’ argument relates to the spirit of the sport itself. Dickinson quite rightly asserts that the outcome of games should be decided by players, not officials. He cites the controversy surrounding France’s second try in their 2007 World Cup quarter-final victory over New Zealand, featuring a suspected forward pass in the build-up, as a prime example of an instance where the system could have come into its own.

“In that case, the New Zealand guys would have known that the pass was forward – so let’s have a look. It’s only going to take five seconds. Either you’re going to give a try and they’ll kick for goal, or you’ll come back down and say ‘forward pass, scrum’.

“It keeps to the spirit of the game, that it’s the players that are deciding the game at the end of the day, not referees. If they have two bad challenges and lose out, well, such is life.”

On the Eden Park event, the ex-referee empathised with Frenchman Poite, and again re-iterated the corrective powers a review system could have brought into play on that occasion.

“Great tackle, wasn’t it?” he joked. “Romain had one look at it at one angle, and he thought he had it exactly right. We’ve all been there, we’ve all done it. You go back and look at the video and say ‘Crikey, how did I miss that?’. It’s no different to the player with a three-on-one who didn’t give the pass and got tackled.”

There is, however, the problem of officials becoming overly-dependent on the TMO for decisions they could comfortably have called correctly unaided, and would have done so if not for the recent IRB option to further increase the role of the video referee – as Italian whistle-blower Marius Mitrea was guilty of in the Ospreys’ victory over Edinburgh in the PRO12 several weeks ago, provoking the ire of fans.

“The biggest thing is that referees do not lose the art of making decisions,” he warned. “That’s what you’re employed to do – make decisions. Not stand back and get someone else to tell you what happened. That permeates through the rest of your game, you lose confidence and worst of all, the players lose confidence in you, and you can sense that.

“Over-reliance on the TMO is a place where you don’t want to be. Then you’re not refereeing anymore.”

Rather, the Australian says, the ‘captain’s challenge’ should be used as a backup or insurance policy for when teams are aggrieved by a particularly high-profile or debatable call.

“You’ve got to allow them to go out and do what they do,” said Dickinson, “and have that as a support mechanism just in case, because they’re human. You’re going to have some great days where you’re going to get everything correct, then you’re going to have some other days where nothing goes right. But as long as all the systems and things are there, then it is a backup just in case.

“You’ve just got that extra bit of protocol to sit behind you as a referee to say that though you may be adamant a decision was correct, the captain can then come to you in the spirit of the game and request it be checked.”

With the rugby world a veritable minefield of opinions and views on the best methods for dealing with the issue, one feels those in positions of power would do well to heed the advice of an individual boasting Dickinson’s credentials and experience. The Australian is “not asking for the system to become law tomorrow”, but does hope that the IRB will at least have a discussion around it.

Whether the governing body will turn to such a scheme to try and wipe out controversial calls from officials remains to be seen. However, there does seem to be real weight behind the former referee’s argument. The ‘captain’s challenge’ procedure could provide a rare, realistic opportunity to safeguard both teams and the men in the middle from the unwanted controversy, while maintaining the spirit of the game. In the words of Dickinson, surely that is worth having a chat over?

By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images

Stuart Dickinson now works as Marketing and Sales Manager at JMJ Associates, a global management consultancy specialising in Enterprise Transformation.

3 thoughts on “Ex-ref Stuart Dickinson calls for “Captain’s Challenge”

  1. You only have to contrast the display of Poite 2 weeks back and Owens yesterday to appreciate what a measured and competent ref is capable of helping produce, and what a stunning effect this can have on a game. For once the ref gets the adulation which is richly deserved. Yesterdays NZ/SA game was simply the best advert for rugby union and reffing there has been for many many years.

    However we have to accept that there are precious few refs who can keep their heads in the pressure of a contest like yesterdays and that human fallibility will always produce controversy. Dickinson’s idea is sound and will go some way to alleviating some of the on field frustration that so many teams have to put up with regularly.

  2. I like the idea – but I’m unsure how it will work in practice. It will work on clear cut decisions, forwards passes, the Du Plessis tackle etc. – great.

    But there are still many decisions in rugby where we watch it and still a week later we sit on this blog and debate whether it was right or wrong. What happens then? It could just turn into a farce. Imagine a 50:50 call going up to the TMO, what happens if he turns over the decision that changes a game completely?

    I like the idea, but it needs a lot of thought.

  3. Does the Captain’s challenge not exist already? How many times will you have seen the skipper ask the ref to go upstairs to check something whether it be foul play or doubts over a score?

    There still remains one massive problem with the TMO. And that’s the fact a TMO is reliant on the host broadcaster. Cricket also suffers that their Decision Review System is also provided by the host broadcaster. This can lead to different levels of technology being available, different camera positions or styles (e.g. spider cams and post cams) and at times the host broadcaster finds an angle later after the decision has been made that proves it to be incorrect. Or something that looks clear cut from one angle or at normal speed suddenly is put into doubt by a different angle or speed.

    With different domestic broadcasters trying new innovations to make their coverage the best and no two grounds being built the same there is no one size fits all solution.

    There is also the problem with time as alluded to. There’s games where enough time is wasted with reset scrums and the officials themselves (quite rightly) discussing decisions. There’s a fine line and challenges may push it over the edge to point where a game starts to resemble American Football!

    It’s a minefield but one that needs to be navigated.

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