Rugby can learn from soccer

Keba Mothoagae

As an ardent rugby and football dualist, I was very curious about how the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system would impact the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

This was against the backdrop of rugby’s often controversial Television Match Official (TMO) system which, instead of being “the answer”, continues to raise more questions. For context, football is a very fluid in comparison to the stop-start nature of rugby, which is why the question of television-assisted refereeing was a hot-button issue when first considered for The Beautiful Game.

“Ah no! The momentum of a soccer match will be affected by the constant stoppages,” argued anti-VARers. “It works perfectly in rugby. The action takes place in zones across the field, as opposed to a football match, which sees the ball in constant motion between the four lines.”

Okay fine, but let’s compare the success rates of VAR and TMO decisions. Isn’t that the point: to make the game fair and leave everybody happy? Let’s set aside the concerns about time-consuming reviews and look at the accuracy of the systems.

From my observations based on rugby and football matches I’ve watched in recent times, the VAR makes more satisfying decisions than the TMO. The recent tours by Ireland and France to Australia and New Zealand respectively are a perfect example.

Jacob Stockdale’s dodgy yellow card for an “elbow” to Nick Phipp’s throat. Israel Folau questionably being sent to the bin and subsequent citing for “playing the man in the air”. The catalog of inconsistent applications of the TMO referrals in all three of the All Blacks-France Tests. It reached a point where I was questioning my very knowledge of the laws of the game.

As I type this, I am watching a Craven Week match in which there have been two poor TMO referrals and non-referrals… in 10 minutes!

And what infuriates me most is the TMO either trying to talk the referee into (or out of) a decision without explicitly saying so, leaving the ref to carry the can all the way. Or when there is obvious doubt among all the officials during a referral, it leads to everyone taking the easy way out.

Comparing the video-assisted refereeing at the 2015 Rugby World Cup with the 2018 FIFA World Cup makes for interesting statistical analysis. According to World Rugby, there were 132 TMO referrals in England, 77 of which were for tries scored, and 55 for suspected foul play. Interestingly, they have chosen not to share the success-rate of those decisions.

FIFA Referee’s Committee Chairman Perluigi Collina stated that the VAR crews in Russia conducted 335 checks during 48 group stage matches, though only 17 were officially reviewed, with a 99.3% success rate. This means that officials are working overtime to analyse possible infringements, but are intent on staying out of the referee’s ear unless absolutely necessary.

It’s the opposite trend in rugby where TMOs have way too much influence on a referee, to the point that I believe whistlemen cop out of key decisions deliberately, inflating the importance of the TMO.

We have long since accepted that referees and their assistants are human, and even with the help of technology, will get big and small decisions wrong. It’s the way sports goes. What we hope for is simple consistency in which everyone is on the same page.

The fact that, on the biggest stage of them all – a soccer world cup – where the stakes are high enough to cause international incidents, there has not been a single controversial VAR decision that was shown to be incorrect. There is something to glean from this in what has been a dark year for officiating in rugby.

Though not as dark as seeing Ronaldo or Falcao disgracefully berate an official because a decision did not go their way. That, thankfully, is not part of game played by gentlemen.

Follow Keba on Twitter: @Keba_MC

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- Keba Mothoagae

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  • herman schroder

    Trying to compare the refereeing and the TMO’s difficulty factor between the two games is an exercise in futility. Chalk and cheese, move on. Cheers.

  • boyo

    Thank you for the article which was a good read and the nicely compares the application of technology in different codes. The Lawbook is still the biggest issue in rugby where there are changes every season and the referee is allowed to interpret and apply laws as he sees fit.

    There was mass publication when football made a major law change recent to allow the ball to be kicked backward off a kickoff(this is how set in stone footballs rules are). Footballs rules are so simple that casual fans can enjoy the game and have them explained to them in under a minute. Rugby as you correctly say has me confused and I watch every week.

    The entire ruck for example only needs two rules an offside line and that you must be on your feet and onside to play the ball. Yet we have about 12 rules to be interpreted or applied at every ruck all of which apparently help make the game better.

  • Herman Schroder?

    Only one law needs to be changed and all else will follow. – Make the BALL the offside line, it’s that simple. Cheers.

  • Sharky

    Comparing the TMO with VAR is difficult due the the vastly differing natures of the two games. Rugby is very technical and the TMO is often called upon to assist in making finely-balanced technical calls. VAR is more likely to assist in making decisions were the referee simply missed something.

    Put simply – reviewing a slow motion reply in soccer is likely to produce a (fairly) uncontroversial decision due to the simplicity of the rules. In rugby the complexity of the rules means that even after reviewing an incident in slow motion from multiple angles the final decision may be subjective (and that’s even if the rules are applied correctly).

    • Andrew

      I think Keba’s main point is that VAR seemed to be far less intrusive and that the decision still came down to the refs on the field. In the final, the ref actually went and looked at the replays himself before making the call. Note he went and looked at a dedicated screen pitch-side, not the crown screen. Also VAR was consistent because for each round a single centralized team team officiated over all of the matches.

      TMO and i suspect VAR are here to stay, rugby and football need to ensure that the systems are accurate and accountable and hopefully not intrusive in the game.

      • Sharky

        A dedicated screen pitch-side for the ref (and maybe touch judges) to review, with no TMO involved. Now that’s something I could go for! But I still think that the nature and complexity of rugby’s laws will always make TMO referrals (whatever their form) subjective.

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