Fix refereeing mistakes in the moment, not after the fact

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

16 thoughts on “Fix refereeing mistakes in the moment, not after the fact

  1. Why not have an automatic referral to the TMO in the case of a red card? They are rare events, so we needn’t worry too much about the pause in the game given the massive impact a red card can have on the outcome of the match. The TMO can then uphold the red card, reduce it to yellow or rescind it altogether.

    The referee on the pitch is only human and while pressure, emotion and adrenaline should not affect his decision, there’s no doubt that it does on some occasions. The TMO is far less exposed to all that.

  2. Think this would just lead to a further erosion of respect for the referee and lead to even more complaints and backchat.

    The referee’s word needs to be final. He has the option to go to the TMO if he wishes but once he has done so, what he says should go and teams need to deal with it and get on with the game.

    It would also slow the game unbearably. It works in cricket and tennis because cricket and tennis take hours to play. American Football has so many breaks anyway that no-one notices another couple.

    With all the kerfuffle over Poite’s decision (and at first I thought Bismarck was both off-side and not using his arms, so I can see where Poite was coming from), everyone seems to have forgotten that Bismarck could quite happily played the entire game after his 10 mins, if he hadn’t smashed Messam in the throat.

    Only Bismarck is responsible for his “38 minute absence from the field.”. Its not as if he didn’t know he already had one yellow card.

  3. Agree with Pablito, 38 mins of the absence was all on BdP. He was on a yellow and committed a second offence (decision upheld).

    Maybe having TMO check all card decisions would be a start. I think I would want to explore the options for a more proactive role for the TMO before looking at referrals. Although TMO errors are not unheard I’m in favour of anything that helps get a greater percentage of key decisions correct. I do like the idea of Cockers being able to drop a red flag of the field, rather than abuse officials (especially as the Lawes hit of Flood was legal!), but I haven’t got any great ideas as to how you can make this work in practice.

  4. I said it in one of the other articles. Refereeing errors are as much part of the game as players knocking on. I know it’s tough to accept for any fan who is robbed by a refereeing error and I will come on ocassionally and rant about referees, but only in the same way I’ll rant about a player who has had a bad game. South Africa can feel hard done by now, but they’ll have to remember that in the past (and future) decisions have gone their way that probably shouldn’t have done.

    Anybody who thinks the DRS system works in cricket is wildly mistaken. There’s still so much debate about what should mean what. For example, at the minute a ball just clipping the stumps on hawkeye remains umpire’s decision, so if the umpire gave not out, he’s not out. However, the team using the review was not wrong to say it would have hit the stumps, yet they lose their review. Other problems regularly creep up like hot spot not always catching a spot on sunny days. Usman Kahwaja was given out against England even though replays showed the ball passed the bat by at least 6 inches and a noise occured some time after the ball passed it.

    I forsee a review system in rugby will still result in controversial decisions that cost teams games and a tight decision would rob one of two sides who deserved to be up a man. How often do we see an incident in slow motion and there’s still a great deal of debate about what happened? Dan Cole’s bite on Mieres generated some debate. The TMO sends Cole off for an incident that might not have been deemed his fault.

    One tradition I think should be upheld in rugby is that the referee is absolute. It’s only a tradition, but there are a lot of traditions in sport, it’s what keeps them honest. I’m for the referee being able to use tools like the touch judges and TMOs for further advice when he thinks he’s seen something and even for them to be able to shout up when there’s something he may have missed, but I think he should be the one to judge how and when those tools are used.

    1. I feel that most fans find the DRS system acceptable, and when evidence suggests that the umpire’s call stands, we don’t feel robbed, because it was then so close and could’ve gone either way. It wasn’t a mistake, it was a 50/50 call.

      It’s been a while since SA had a team as talented, fit and up for the challenge as now, we actually stood a chance against the world nr 1 in their own backyard, but a very poor decision and blatant disregard for the aids on offer ultimately changed the course of the match. That decision made every single player think twice about flattening a ball-carrier and hitting him back behind the advantage line, it creates doubt in the players minds. We now need to wait another year for a similar opportunity and only time will tell whether we’ll be a stronger or weaker side when we visit NZ again. I do feel that the All Blacks were the better team on the day and they probably still would’ve won the match in the end, but I think the score would’ve been much closer.

      The main reason referrals are called for now, is the increase in mistakes being made by the officials. Super Rugby delivered a bucket load and so has quite a few international incidents and Currie Cup matches. If something isn’t done about it soon, the game will lose a lot of support.

      People can say what they want, but I as a South African can tell you that we aren’t sore losers, we just want things to be fair and square. And we’ve been on the receiving end of the mistake stick often enough to be fed up.

      1. I doubt there is an increase in mistakes by officials though, I suspect that the increased fitness and scrutiny on refs mean they’re getting more decisions right. What’s actually happening is you’re seeing them. The extra camera angles, the high definition footage, the super slow motion that the TV companies give us is why we seemingly spot more mistakes. To add to that, the ability to find these videos the day after an incident online and look again keeps an incident fresh in our minds. 20 years ago, if this happened the footage would be grainy in slow motion with maybe 2 camera angles and you’d see nothing conclusive and it would be pretty much acceptable that that’s what the referee saw, even if you see otherwise in the camera angles. Now they are criticised for decisions that they make in an instant because the 100 reviews from 30 camera angles in slow motion make him wrong.

        I genuinely think that refereeing errors are part of the game and the referee’s ultimate power is part of the game. Bismarck and du Plessis’ response to the yellow card and everything that happened actually beautifully summed up what the sport is about. No hard feelings, it was a mistake that’s what rugby is about onto the next game. I’m far from saying South Africa are sore losers, in fact I’m saying the opposite. The referee got it wrong and South Africa have a right to feel annoyed and I’ll feel annoyed the next time the referee gets it wrong against England or Leicester, but I wouldn’t want the ref to be challenged by the players. I’d like to see that referee, like any player that underperforms scrutinised by his bosses, which happens, we just don’t see it.

        The DRS in cricket is still highly controversial. India still refuse to play under it and there are still talking points in pretty much every game where it’s used and something about a referral is sketchy. The limited number of reviews a side has is necessary to prevent a review on every incident, but ultimately things still slip through the cracks. Furthermore, there is some evidence that umpires have become a little lazy and reluctant to make tight calls leaving it for the review to make a decision, which will come out in their favour if it’s tight.

        Will referees not bother to give a yellow card under tight circumstances unless there’s a challenge, in which case his view will probably be upheld unless he got it very wrong? I suspect so. Take a high tackle. In full speed it looks ferocious, probably worthy of a yellow card. Now a high tackle is a grey area for yellow cards so the referee doesn’t card him because the team can review. The offended team review, the TMO thinks “maybe” but upholds the referee’s decision and there’s still no yellow. In the case of BdP, had that gone to a TMO with the decision weighted towards the referee, I do kind of wonder if the TMO would be wondering “is there sufficient evidence that he used his arms? maybe – referee’s view uphgeld” and we’ll end up in the same mess only the TMO obviously got it wrong too.

        1. You make some very valid points, especially with regards to the angles and slow mo replays that we are able to watch, so I’ll concede that the refs aren’t making more mistakes, they’ve just become highlighted for all to judge. I just still feel with the professional nature of the game, and the stakes at risk, find a way to use what’s available and make the most of them without spoiling the game – it is very viable. A ref doesn’t have to go “I think blah blah blah….”, simply say to the TMO throw an incident on the big screen (like I’ve actually seen them do) and then make your call.

          I feel that the IRB is largely to blame for the scrutiny the refs are under at the moment. Like you stated both players and refs have to answer to their bosses post match, but a players gets dropped or suspended and the whole thing is made public – we go “great, they’ve benched or omitted John Doe because he’s clearly not on form and maybe he’ll now realize that he needs to earn his spot in the team”. The refs are apparently punished as well, but there’s no report on the consequences, we’re left in the dark and it irritates fans across the globe.

          There are many real-time oversights that we’re willing to overlook – like a slightly forwards pass, or a little fumble by the scrummy, but those are rarely missed because the refs actually review those at the end of that play. They seem to pay very good attention to the minor details that in all honestly probably wouldn’t have affected the outcome anyway, but they turn a blind eye to those same aids when making game changing calls.

  5. A bit of an off the wall idea but what about dropping cards altogether and instead those who have sinned told they are on report. After the games all 4 officials review the reports and players are given a range of bans from being selected to play in future games or for minor offenses (e.g. killing the ball in the red zone) the club is fined. The clubs and coaches would soon crack the whip with their players. OK I agree not really practical but it does answer the issues raised by the present system.

    1. Nope, that will not level the playing field, a player like Richie McCaw, Pocock, Flo and Bismarck will then continuously kill the ball in the red zone and the game will become messy at the breakdown.

  6. Cynicism runs too deep into the game. The yellow is not just there for dangerous play, it’s there for desperately cynical play too. While one week ban will land you in trouble for deliberately preventing a try illegally, you can be replaced next week and the team will be at near enough full strength, so you will get players diving on the hand grenade. The yellow card as it exists means that your team will be without you for 10 minutes so if you think you’re saving your side, they’re now going to spend 10 minutes of a game down a man and you’re more likely to hinder than help., so for me, the cards stay to discourage cynical play.

    The report system works well in league because there is less pressure on to cheat. The knowledge that you only have to endure 5 phases makes cheating less worthwile, as well as the fact that scoring comes more easily. In union however, after 15 phases on your own line and not knowing when the ball is going to get turned over just encourages a cheat to save the try that and the 10 minute sin bin period acts both to discourage that and appropriately award the team who are sinned against.

  7. The referees decision on the park should be final however , surely, with the help of the two assistants, the TMO, Slow Motion Replays , the referee should be in a position to come up with correct decision. The recent event re Poite, just proves that the guy was incapable and should not be allowed international matches again for a long time. There are also many other Refereeing errors at lower levels as well. In the Northamton v Gloucester game last week end, following a Saints score, when Glo kicked off, four of their players where in front of the ball!The Ref and both Assistants missed it! Not good enough!

    1. I fully agree that the refs aren’t up to scratch and not making use of the aids they have, what bothers me more is that the TMO is actually less qualified (or not as good as the ref on the field) and the amount of mistakes I’ve seen them make with the help of slow mo is just ridiculous. There’s been a few incidents in our Currie Cup where I’m watching the same reply as the TMO and he delivers his verdict and I go, how the hell does he not see what I’m seeing?

      Whether it’s a knock-on, a grounding or a foot in touch or forward pass, some of these okes should just not be allowed to officiate at these levels.

  8. The referee on the pitch is only human and while pressure, emotion and adrenaline should not affect his decision, there’s no doubt that it does on some occasions. The TMO is far less exposed to all that.”

    Disagree – same pressure, emotion and adrenaline are rife in the TMO truck – a working room with up to 10 other people in the room (albeit doing their own jobs of creating TV programmes for veiwers to watch). If you look at some of the controversy around some of the Currie Cup games in recent weeks, you’ll see that for yourself! While there are humans involved, there will be human errors.

    Some people (including those commenting here) seem to think that the the only perfect person on the pitch is the one with the whistle. Come on – wake up! Players all make mistakes which cost a side points. Accept that every now and again officials will err – but the stats show that they will do so far less than all the other participants! We are all human and do our utmost to make sure those errors are few and far between. We don’t always succeed. But we will always keep trying.

    1. I don’t think anybody expects the refs to be error-free, but with the technology at hand, I think it should be utilized properly. We the supporters and the commentators definitely do not think the refs are perfect, it seems that notions falls on the shoulders of the officials instead. When assistance is at your fingertips but your ego reigns supreme, and you refuse to be helped, you deserve all the flack you get for getting it wrong. Some refs do it beautifully and it really doesn’t waste that much time, whilst others make heat of the moment calls with devastating consequences without so much as looking at a replay.

  9. Why not just call in the Precogs from Minority Report and get it over with?

    THAT’S LIFE! Get over it… this isn’t football where we debate every single referee decision to the nth degree. Shame on The Rugby Blog for writing this clap trap….

  10. As someone who is relatively new to Rugby (I’m in the U.S.) I was screaming at my screen at Poite (never was one of my favorite refs) like, I take it, most fans that weren’t Kiwis. I watched the replays and watch as Poite ignored them completely, ending with the red card. Now. Wasn’t there a Citing commissioner present at the game? Since these events resulted in a red card, why not give the citing commissioner the ability to overrule the ref, but only if it is a red card or perhaps the second yellow? The problem seems to be that while the ref is usually right, someone like Poite or Bryce Lawrence consult the asst. refs and the TMO and then disregard what they are told leading to the result that everyone who is not a Kiwi has been complaining about.

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