Much noise has been made in the rugby and social media following the Romain Poite incident in Auckland last week. And while South African rugby fans have made a questionable habit of reacting to refereeing errors with online outrage (a factor which pushed Bryce Lawrence to retire from refereeing in the aftermath of his performance in the Springboks’ RWC 2011 quarter-final), the Republic is not alone. Just ask a Welsh fan about the RWC 2011 semi-final red card for Sam Warburton or a Kiwi about the yellow card Wayne Barnes showed to Luke McAlister in RWC 2007. Have a word with a French fan about the RWC 2011 final.
Humans will always make mistakes (and since we make the machines for now, so will they). The game has responded over the years with various means by trying to give them tools to help, but the glaring problem has not yet been solved: however much consequence may follow a game, nothing can (or should) change the result retrospectively. And the result is what matters.
Bismarck’s red card has been removed from his record, the IRB have said Poite got it wrong, and even Poite has said himself that he made a mistake. So, nothing stops Bismarck playing in the next test, but the result remains unchanged – the All Blacks won the test match. The Rugby Championship may have been decided by Bismarck’s 38 minute absence from the field. History has recorded a win for the All Blacks.
The same applies to the Bryce Lawrence fiasco, and every other potentially match-changing refereeing decision.
Nobody is saying the Springboks would have beaten the All Blacks with Bismarck playing a full game (or, a 70 minute game, given the other yellow card). Nor can we say they would have beaten the Wallabies in 2011 if Lawrence hadn’t let Pocock conduct his on-the-ground masterclass. Or that France would have lost if the pass in 2007 was judged forward. That’s not the point. The point is that everyone – players, coaches, fans, pundits, referees – sure would have liked to have had a fair chance to see the outcome of the correct, unaffected contest.
Every South African fan who watched last week’s game feels robbed of the answer to a simple question: can our team beat the world champions in their fortress? If they’d tried their best, unaffected by refereeing, and lost, that would have been fine – at least we’d have known the answer. But we were denied that answer, and that is terribly toxic to the game. It’s even more toxic in World Cups, given the burden of history and impact on the career of every individual involved.
I think the search for a solution to this has to focus on finding a mechanism to make sure the question gets answered fairly, in the moment – not posthumously, when that is impossible.
It’s inevitable that referees will make mistakes, given the pace of the game, the intensity of the experience, the baying of the crowd, the pressure from the teams, and the amount of action that one man’s brain must process and judge in real time. A lot of tools have been added to the officiating arsenal to try to improve refereeing quality: the TMO, the upgrading of touch judges to assistant referees, the use of the big screen replay, changes to the laws, training, scrutiny of results, penalties for poorly performing referees (they get time out from big games, which must hurt their pockets and pride), etc.
All of this is good, and has helped, but still does not solve the fundamental problem – if a clear mistake happens, and is not rectified, tainted results will continue to pollute rugby history.
The only solution I see that could give us that in-the-moment correction of a mistake is to introduce a challenge/review system, as has happened in tennis, cricket and, most similarly to rugby, I guess, American Football.
Picture this scenario: the Bismarck rams into HMNZS Carter at full speed of 30.01 knots. The Carter goes down with a gaping hole in its bow. The All Blacks react in fury, and the brawl breaks out. Poite gets that calmed down, then goes to the TMO with the instruction to look for any foul play in the brawl, saying he has already judged the tackle. The TMO comes back to say no foul play anywhere. Poite calls over Bismarck and Jean de Villiers and runs the yellow flag up the mast of the Bismarck, calling the tackle dangerous and high. Twitter spins up an extra 50 cloud servers to cope with the traffic spike of South African rage.
So far, that’s what happened.
But what if, now, Jean de Villiers or Heyneke Meyer throws a red flag on the field as they do in gridiron. The game stops and the South Africans are permitted to request an instant review of that specific decision by the TMO (or some combination of the match officials). The event is reviewed in slow motion glory on TV. Given the subsequent acceptance by all involved that the decision was wrong, I imagine the TMO, with a little more time and distance from the moment than Poite, would have concluded that the tackle was hard, but legal, and rescinded the yellow card.
Too much of this would slow down and gamify the match too much, so you’d restrict each team to a maximum number of reviews – perhaps two?
The TMO, or whoever might judge these reviews, could of course also get them wrong. But at least the affected team would feel that they had a chance to get a correction, and would the time used up really be an issue, given what is at stake?
Rules would apply as to what kinds of decisions could be reviewed – possibly only cards, or cards and penalties?
Something has to be done to address these problems in the heat of the moment, not after the fact when the fundamental impact of a mistake has already been made. Would a team-initiated review system work, or at least increase the percentage of correct decisions, as it has to varying degrees of success in other sports?
By Andy Wood (@SuperBruGeneral)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images