Saturday’s showdown between the Sharks and Lions dragged on for almost 100 minutes. Spectators spent too much of the match gawking at the big screens as TMO Marius Jonker agonised over decisions referred to him by Jaco Peyper.
Those in attendance yearned for the days when one referee, warts and all, ran the game. Back then, players accepted that what they lost on the roundabouts, they would gain on the swings. Rugby officiating needs to do a 180.
The infernal TMO obstructions to the natural flow of the game are exacerbated by the other irritating time wasters that have crept in, such as the mini team-talks before a lineout, the excruciating setting and resetting of scrums, and water-carriers creeping on with instructions…
Sometimes, time-wasting piggybacks on the TMO timeouts for a double whammy — we are talking about the pantomime of a team trooping back to the halfway line while the TMO decides if a try has been scored. It is an ill-conceived ruse to influence the TMO because he has a range of camera angles to get his decision right. And if the try has not been scored, the players trudge back to the opposition 22.
In rugby’s days of yore, the players just got on with it, and just about their only respite was when they gathered behind the sticks to wait for the conversion attempt. The only time the stadium clock stopped during the match was for half-time, and the “injury time” added on at the end of the 80 minutes was at the discretion of the referee. Matches seldom went beyond 82 or 83 minutes.
While the matter of the players holding up play should be sorted out by the referees, the TMO issue needs to be tackled by the lawmakers who created the villain. Like Dr Frankenstein’s monster, the TMO embryo did not look too bad in the lab but once given power it morphed out of control.
Before the advent of the TMO system, but after the game turned professional, referees improved drastically from their amateur predecessors. But now we have four officials adjudicating a game and it is case of too many chefs spoiling the broth.
The man with the whistle is being emasculated by having a number of decisions taken away from him and given to the laptop jockeys. Referees worth their salt must be privately frustrated by this erosion of their authority. The good ones back themselves to get decisions right on the field and would prefer to embrace responsibility, not outsource it.
The introduction of technology was meant to improve the game but has it made the game more watchable? The TMOs were initially limited to judging whether or not a try had been scored. That was a good development and that is where it should have stayed. But more and more responsibility has been taken away from the on-field referee as the TMO system gets increasingly overused.
The lawmakers have made the game so complicated in their pursuit of getting matters spot-on that it can become a sanitised, stop-start affair. Last week’s match at Kings Park is a good example – the TMO interruptions gave the Sharks time to catch their breath after each long period of frantic defending, while the halts impeded the attacking momentum of the Lions. Any rugby player will tell you that defending takes more out of you than attacking.
The over-officiating of today is just about as bad for the game as the amateur era when one-eyed referees could influence the outcome. Back in the day, home town referees had the latitude to be biased because they were not answerable to the fine-tooth comb of technology.
The All Blacks swore that the major reason they did not win a series in South Africa prior to 1996 was because of the officials. In the 1976 series, Gert Bezuidenhout was on the receiving end of scorching criticism from the tourists because of “blatant cheating”. Ten years later, the New Zealand Cavaliers verged on violent protest at Ken Rowlands’ handling of the four-Test series — even though he was Welsh, the Kiwis believed he was in the Springboks’ pocket. There was the unforgettable sight of hooker Hika Reid bumping his shoulder into Rowlands after the final whistle of the Ellis Park Test, while giving him a mouthful of expletives.
And it was the other way around too. Another Welshman, Clive Norling, became a South African swearword in 1981 when, to Springbok supporters, he appeared to contrive a result in favour of the All Blacks in the series-decider at Eden Park.
That type of bias, perceived or actual, thankfully has been taken out of the game because the correct use of technology keeps the referees “honest”, as they say in New Zealand.
Rugby’s lawmakers need to put their pride in their pockets and the TMOs back in their boxes. Let one referee do his best, and if, in the course of a free-flowing game, he makes the odd mistake, so be it.