Rugby’s replay madness

The increasing involvement of the TV producer is beginning to have damaging consequences, writes MARK KEOHANE.

TV broadcasters determine everything in rugby union. The broadcaster decides on which day the Test is played. The broadcaster confirms starting times. Without the money of the broadcaster there is no professional game.

But the TV producer has now assumed an importance equal to the broadcaster for whom they work. The broadcaster has taken patriotism to another level; started to believe he/she is player 24 and in most instances the most influential of any home team coach’s super subs.

Rugby’s audience is encouraged to be boorish … be it at Twickenham or Ellis Park. Dublin’s Aviva Stadium may lack the soul of the old Lansdowne Road, but there is still respect for the game, for the referee and for the goal-kicker. But television replays on the big screen, insistent and continuous, even turned the Dublin do-gooders into replay sinners.

It started with a Marcell Coetzee run that had the crowd believing, thanks to repeated big-screen replays, that he had led with the forearm. It was nonsense but it took the best part of two minutes and a succession of replays for the referee to rule a scrum feed. Rugby is, after all, a contact sport.

The crowd was insistent Coetzee should be sent off. They chanted for his departure and for the Irish to be rewarded. Sanity prevailed but it was the exception rather than the rule in the mad world of the television replay.

Adriaan Strauss’s marginal ‘in the air’ challenge was only punished because of the crowd’s insistence that the referee revisit the moment of contact. The referee had played on. His touchline assistants seemed comfortable to continue play but then the TV producer stepped in – and this is becoming the norm.

One replay. Then another, in super-slow motion. Then the crowd buzzed, which turned to crowd irritation and then the crowd chant of ‘off … off … off’ started.

That’s when the referee halted play and referred the incident to the TMO, who gets footage that is slowed down to super-super-super-super slow motion to push the case of the home side.

Any tackle in rugby, when slowed down to a near freeze frame, can be made to look vicious or to have malicious intent. Any pass, when slowed down sufficiently, can be made to look forward and any grounding, when really slowed down, can appear as a knock-on.

TV referrals, like in cricket, were encouraged to limit the howlers and not to replace the referee or the real-time interpretation of the man tasked with the responsibility of officiating the game.

Nigel Owens’ officiating of the England vs New Zealand game was ridiculous when it came to the use of the TMO. It wasn’t because Owens selectively used the TMO, but why. He used it because of the pitchfork mentality among the 82,000 at Twickenham.

When they chanted their displeasure, the referee looked upwards at the big-screen replay and then looked again and then halted play to have another look.

This was not a case of ensuring accuracy in decision-making. It was clearly an ignorant and agenda-based home crowd doing anything possible to influence a hometown decision.

Owens, after officiating a 22-phase All Blacks try that took three minutes and two seconds to score, was less than a metre away from the action when he awarded the try. But when the crowd objected to something they believed they had seen on the replay – a replay slowed down to super-slow motion, Owens overruled his decision just before the conversion was about to be taken and asked for a TMO referral.

Who knows what he was looking for, but it lasted less than 10 seconds and he waved on play. It was a particularly disturbing moment, showing how the TV producer can find something to play that will incite the ire of the home crowd knowing that the chants and displeasure will ensure the referee has a second look.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen rightly questioned the wisdom of it all after his team beat England. Why go to the TMO in the first place when his decision counts for nothing? Hansen was referring to the yellow card given to hooker Dane Coles. The TMO’s recommendation was a penalty.

He was asked whether the kick at an opponent’s ankle warranted a sending-off. The answer was an emphatic ‘no’. The crowd started chanting and the replay was shown over and over. Owens predictably bowed to the pressure of the crowd and sent off Coles. It was a similar situation with Strauss’s sending-off. Technically, and when slowed down to a bare minimum, the referee was right.

Then again, technically the referee can never be wrong in union because the complicated nature of the laws means there is always a sub-section of a sub-section that can be applied to any decision.

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer once told me the laws in union are such that a referee could turn his back on the play, face the crowd, blow his whistle and award a team a penalty and there would be a technical infringement, no matter how minute, that would justify the referee’s decision.

Rugby is too complicated in its laws, many of which are outdated and have no bearing on the flow of the game. Yet referees, often influenced by home crowds, are technically correct if applying them at their convenience.

I am not knocking the referee, but rather the game’s lawmakers and the custodians of the game who should be protecting the referee and doing everything to eliminate the howler. They should also be allowing for rugby to be a contact sport and for rugby to be a fair game in which the visiting team isn’t prejudiced by way of being away from home.

Players simply want a contest. They don’t need to be up against the mob mentality, an official who buckles because of human vulnerability and an agenda-based television producer who has eyes only for his home team.

It’s a crazy situation. The referee must be left to trust his eyes and the immediacy of real-time action.

If you take nearly every touchdown for a try and slice and dice it with modern technology’s super-slow freeze frames, you’d never see a try awarded in the game. The bias of a home crowd is understandable, but the ease with which the mad mob influences referees is not as understandable, and neither is it acceptable.

The media only adds to the issue because of the slanted take on match-day proceedings. Read the match report of a Test match featuring South Africa and England, as scripted by the journalists from the two respective countries.

By default the English focus on the English players and the South African media largely singles out the performance of the Springboks. There is no match objectivity because the readership asks for a local focus and not an independent view.

It is why the referee’s integrity is what determines his standing in the global game. What is being challenged now is the absence of integrity from the home television producer.

No country is exempt. In London, England get the favourable replays. In Dublin, it’s Ireland; at Ellis Park, it’s South Africa and at Eden Park it’s New Zealand. There are enough complications in travel and touring without the away side having to now also play the television producer.

Meyer said as much after the Boks’ horror defeat against Ireland in Dublin, but he was also honest enough to know this was not a match determined by the incompetence or bias of a referee; alternatively the overzealous patriotism of a television producer.

The Springboks were found out for a lack of match preparation. Resting the Boks for the Currie Cup play-offs had merit, but they should have enjoyed a warm-up match before playing Ireland. The core of the match squad hadn’t played a game in more than a month. And it showed.

The scrums and lineouts were good but the cohesion was missing and the basics of catch and pass were almost absent. You can’t simulate taking the ball into contact and the feeling of the body taking a tackle. The Boks looked like a team that hadn’t played a game in a while and the intensity matched a pre-season hit out.

There was intent but that is not the same as intensity. The result was more emphatic than you’d have got from any bookmaker, who had installed South Africa as favourites.

The result was also an emphatic reminder of the folly of judging the team (and country’s worth) exclusively on an ability to win a World Cup every four years.

The measure of World Cup success is making it to the last four. From there it becomes a lottery and one good 40 minutes as opposed to an indifferent 40 minutes is the difference between a flight home and another week in a foreign hotel.

One good TMO decision as opposed to one mad mob-influenced TMO decision is how fine the margin can be.

Meyer, in the past three years, has sought to create a winning habit with the Springboks. He has succeeded because a winning percentage in excess of 70 is better than the 63% the Springboks managed before Meyer’s appointment.

Nothing compares to the All Blacks in rugby and no team sport in the world has matched the All Blacks for consistency and for winning. Since the start of the 2011 World Cup, they have lost two and drawn two from 49 starts.

The Springboks – and the South African rugby public – need to lose the obsession with the All Blacks and with the comparison to everything New Zealand, because our players don’t have the mentality to back up getting up for New Zealand and then getting up for another team of lesser skill.

South Africa have to focus on beating a few more teams than New Zealand if they are to win the World Cup and if they are to consistently challenge for the bragging rights to be the game’s best team.

There was a lesson in the 2011 World Cup failure and there was almost a costly lesson for the All Blacks, who obsessed with beating Australia to such a degree that they had little left for the final against France. South Africa’s folly was to focus so much on playing New Zealand in the semi-final that they never got past Australia in the quarter-final.

The Springboks’ defeat in Ireland was a reality check on how easily it can go wrong away from home. If that had been a World Cup play-off match, the Boks would have been on a plane home.

It surely is a reminder to the public that nothing can be taken as a given when it comes to World Cups and that there is more to rugby than playing and beating the All Blacks.

It was also a reminder of the value of a player like Fourie du Preez. The veteran scrumhalf, injured for most of the international season, is integral to the potential of the Boks in any Test, and more so during a World Cup campaign. The Springboks, without the authority of Du Preez at No 9, are a lesser unit. He brings composure and leadership, as does another veteran, Victor Matfield.

The knee-jerk reaction after the Irish defeat was to label the Boks a team of old men. It is quite the contrary. There is balance between young and old; as there is with experience and novelty. What there isn’t yet is consistency in performance and the ability to play a game as favourites.

There is no need for panic but there is a need for honesty about the inconsistency within the squad performance. Similarly, there also needs to be honesty within the IRB about the growing influence of the television producer and the pending disaster of the mad mob getting to whoever referees the World Cup final.

The ability and skill of players is what should determine who wins on a Saturday; not 80 000 ignorant and patriotic hometown supporters – among them one armed with manipulative editing skills, access to the on-field big screen and a manic desire to be player No 24.

– This first appeared in the December issue of Sport Monthy, which is inserted in selected subscriber copies of the Business Day and Sunday Times newspapers.

Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images