For how long will rugby union continue to eat itself?
A week last Saturday, the Test between England and South Africa at Twickenham ended in highly controversial circumstances when a questionable Owen Farrell tackle in the final seconds of the game was deemed legitimate. A resultant penalty would have offered South Africa an eminently kickable shot at goal which, if successful, would have given them victory.
And so it was again at Twickenham on Saturday when Sam Underhill’s late “try”, which would quite probably have given England a rare triumph over New Zealand, was effectively disallowed by the Television Match Official (TMO) because Courtney Lawes was ruled to have been marginally offside at a ruck before charging down TJ Perenara’s kick.
My very firm belief is that Lawes was onside and Underhill’s try, which was initially awarded by referee Jérôme Garcès, should have stood. But the most ridiculous aspect of an incident that left a very dark stain on an otherwise outstanding Test was how Garcès and Marius Jonker, the TMO, interpreted World Rugby’s TMO Global Trial Protocol.
These words are from the Protocol’s “guiding principles”:
- The TMO is a tool to help referees and assistant referees. The referee should not be subservient to the system.
- The referee is the decision-maker and must remain in charge of the game.
- Any relevant information taken into consideration must be CLEAR and OBVIOUS [not my capital letters]….
- The application of the TMO system must be credible and consistent, protecting the image of the game.
And this is paragraph 2.5 from the Protocol: “In reviewing the potential offence the TMO must use the criterion on each occasion that the infringement must be clear and obvious if he is to advise the referee not to award a try. If there is any doubt as to whether an offence has occurred or not the TMO must advise that an offence has not occurred.”
Now please consider Jonker’s words to Garcès (words, by the way, that sounded rather more like an edict than advice): “It’s offside, so you need to change your on-field decision to a penalty.”
Was the so-called infringement clear and obvious? (Of course it bloody wasn’t – hence the global debate that has ensued.)
Was there any doubt as to whether an offence occurred? (There certainly was some doubt, m’lud! In fact, loads of it.)
Was the application of the TMO system credible and consistent? (Mmm, I don’t recollect a plethora of back-of-the-ruck offside penalties being awarded in the rest of the game.)
Was the referee the decision-maker and did he remain in charge of the game? (That’ll be, erm, no and no.)
The laws of rugby union have become complicated enough for the vast majority of mere mortals. So can the sport really continue to afford the type of utterly avoidable fiasco that happened on Saturday? It was an appalling interpretation of the regulations, although World Rugby, quite astonishingly, has concluded that the Protocol was adhered to.
Go on, rugby union – keep eating yourself.