Rugby is facing a massive catch-22 in its quest to both satisfy the drive to make the game fairer and safer, while also halting the declining interest in the sport by making it more entertaining and watchable.
It should be a concern to World Rugby that the best game of a mediocre past weekend of international rugby, the one at Twickenham, should end amidst a chorus of boos.
If you take away the reasonable question about whether the angle provided by the television cameras really gives you a fair idea of where the offside line is in close calls, the TMO was correct in disallowing the try that might well have given England victory over the All Blacks.
That’s if you apply the letter of the law. But it was interesting that someone as experienced as Sky commentator Stuart Barnes should dispute the call. Anyone who has read or listened to Barnes will know he’s not a fan with a microphone, he is one of the most objective people in the business.
Barnes said the game was decided by a subjective call. What he would have been referring to there was not just the marginal nature of the call, but also the probability that for a TMO to spot the infringement he had to really be looking for it.
The Sharks under Gary Gold and then later Robert du Preez have had problems at Ellis Park in recent years with a TMO who they felt looked too hard for errors in Sharks scoring movements, and less hard for errors from the Lions.
The marginal TMO call that may have decided the Twickenham game focused on an incident that nine times out of 10 would have been ignored and which would almost certainly have been overlooked had it not led to a try.
For those who disagree with that, here is a challenge – watch the video of the plays that took place after that incident and tell me there wasn’t at least one occasion that the All Blacks did not go offside and should have been penalised. If you really look for it, you will find it.
Why this is a catch-22 for World Rugby is that if there is to be a quest for referees and TMOs to get everything 100-percent correct and to be fair, then the TMOs have to play more of a role. Yet there is already too much interference and too much holding up of play by TMOs.
But here’s the big problem World Rugby should be wrestling with: The sport, like lots of professional sports that are leaning towards the over-use of technology, is losing its spontaneity.
Before technology was introduced fans and players could immediately celebrate the awarding of a try to their team with unbridled delight. Now the celebration has to be mooted by the possibility that a TMO might go back to a play that happened two minutes earlier.
Professional sport needs to be lived in the moment to be properly enjoyable for both fans and participants, but increasingly that key ingredient is being lost.
What is also being undermined is flow and tempo, and some games are held up so much by TMO intervention that the whole fatigue factor is taken out of it. The most recent example of that was the recent stop-start Currie Cup final, where the suspect Sharks fitness was just never tested because of all the stoppages.
Instead of being played over 80 minutes, a rugby match now extends beyond 100 minutes. People talk about ball-in-play time but how relevant is that if a period where there is extended ball-in-play is then followed by an extended period where the spectators who paid to watch the game sit around picking their noses?
A few decades ago, no-one cared too much about extra entertainment at a game, there wasn’t much need for cheerleaders. Now it has become a massive emphasis because there is time during today’s paused matches that needs to be filled.
The player safety issue is also a catch-22 because an over-sanitised game is a less appealing one to the paying spectator. I joined the rest of the rugby world in condemning Angus Gardner for not penalising Owen Farrell at Twickenham 10 days ago, but there were a few contrary voices on the Kiwi television program, Breakdown, worth taking note of.
Richard Turner argued that Andre Esterhuizen made it hard for Farrell because he led into the tackle. It was hard to disagree with him if you followed his argument. As the law stands, it should still have been a penalty because intent is irrelevant. The same argument applies to cases when players are sent off because of clashes in the air and the sort of incident that led to Kwagga Smith being red-carded in the 2017 Super Rugby final.
But isn’t that bollocks? Of course there is a need to try and keep the game as safe as possible, but there are also too many contests ruined by cards that are dished out for what was often an accident rather than the result of malicious intent.
The former All Black lock Ali Williams was also part of that Kiwi TV show. His view was an unambiguous one – rugby is a contact sport where there will be collisions, and the drive to take the collision aspect out of it is detracting from the appeal of the sport.
I’m completely with Williams on that. If World Rugby ignores that line of thinking, they do so at the sport’s peril.