Anyone watching rugby last weekend or even reading their Sunday papers cannot have missed news, pictures or footage of Manu Tuilagi’s brutal flurry of punches on Chris Ashton during the fiery Tigers vs Saints Premiership Semi Final. While he will undoubtedly be cited for it, and hopefully given a decent ban (as opposed to a Mark Cueto we need you for the World Cup sort of ban), I’m not going to debate the rights and wrongs of punching Chris Ashton (I am sure more people would rather Ashton dropped a ball during a swan dive than got punched in the face, but his very success makes him a divisive figure around the country, especially outside England). Nor indeed Richard Cockerill’s usual PDV Tutu-style response.
No, what I would like to suggest is a way in which we could help the match officials not to look like idiots, or incompetents, or incompetent idiots.
Firstly, this would only apply to matches already with a Television Match Official (TMO) in place. Football seems to reject video assistance under the guise of some egalitarian “if the kids can’t do it in their alleyway/park/supermarket car park, then we won’t” attitude. This ignores totally the massive gulf between the grass roots of the game and the top level, a gulf of both skill but also wealth, means and privilege. Perhaps if they could police the top level of the game more accurately by using video assist, then the so-called “role models” would be forced to behave as such. On the pitch, anyway.
But I digress. Rugby has no such pretence and we are quite happy with the widening gap between our top level and grass roots (indeed in Scotland we have so taken this gap to heart that we have decided to reflect it on an administrative level too). Rugby has TMOs at Pro/Club and International level and they are regularly called upon to help the Referee decide whether or not a try has been scored.
When an incident occurs that so clearly contravenes the laws (not to mention the spirit of the game) such as Tuilagi’s punch, or say, gouging in the first minute of a Lions test, or taking a quick line-out with the wrong ball, shouldn’t the TMO be allowed to intervene?
I would argue for a five minute window, after which anything not caught would be dealt with by the citing process/referee assessor as usual. But within that five minute window if anything that should have resulted in a Yellow or a Red card (or a Penalty try too perhaps?) the TMO should have the ability to call the ref over the radio and say “oi Barnes, you got it wrong, Tigers 13, straight Red.” That’s Wayne, not Stuart.
It could not, of course, be allowed to happen all the time. Our game is stop-start enough to allow unfettered interruptions, but that very fact means there would likely be a convenient spot to intervene and bring something to the ref’s attention, at the next stoppage in play.
I am not saying this is a perfect idea – you’d need to legislate for what might have happened in the intervening period between offence and it being brought to the ref’s attention in terms of where to restart from, who has the ball and so on. I think to avoid conveniently timed turnovers it would have to be a case of apply the card but keep play as it was. Most offences of a yellow and red card nature are spotted quickly enough though, and the gap between offence and punishment would likely be much less than five minutes.
A less radical suggestion to begin with would be that the ref could have the option to call upon the TMO when he is having a conference with his Assistant Referee. After all, he often asks the one from other side of the pitch “anything to add?” Why not take 30 seconds and ask the TMO (also a qualified ref) too?
I know that the referee is the sole judge of fact on the pitch, but when everyone off the pitch can see he got his facts wrong, surely a little help – from a facility already in place – wouldn’t go amiss?