The Blog

Time to Help Refs By Bringing DRS to Rugby

Anything that makes a referee's job that little bit easier should be welcomed. And for an official, having a decision overturned is surely eminently preferable to having their performance torn apart in the days following a match.

Rugby union referees have an extremely tough job - no one denies that. Perhaps more than in any other sport, the laws of the game are in a regular state of flux, and many are open to interpretation - all of which means there are any number of contentious decisions in practically every match.

Fans of rugby union are rightly proud of the respect shown towards match officials - it's one of the things separating the sport from football, which is regularly blighted by the sight of players charging towards the ref with almost murderous intent etched onto their face. But the complexity of refereeing the sport at the elite level, coupled with the pressure placed on players and coaches to succeed, threatens to undermine that respect.

Infringements occur at practically every breakdown, scrum and line-out, and it's up to the referee to decide whether to penalise every single one or instead punish only the most serious in a bid to let the game flow. Rugby is meant to be entertaining, after all, and no one enjoys watching a match where the ref is the most prominent person on the field (regardless of what Steve Walsh might think!).

Video replays mean greater scrutiny

Displaying a degree of common sense (or leniency) is all well and good, but in the modern age of video replays and constant analysis - by players, coaches, pundits and even fans - every decision a referee makes is subject to great scrutiny.

Unfortunately, this means it's becoming increasingly common for officials to come in for almost vitriolic criticism after the match.

Martin Fox, who took charge of last weekend's Aviva Premiership clash between Gloucester and Northampton after replacing the injured Greg Garner at the 11th hour, is just one referee who's found himself on the wrong end of a barrage of abuse so far this season. In the dying minutes of the Cherry and White's last-gasp victory, Fox allowed several Gloucester players to get away with being offside at a restart, before awarding the West Country side a controversial scrum penalty that saw them win the match with the final kick of the ball.

No one's suggesting that referees should be above scrutiny. Fox clearly made some incorrect decisions, which were compounded by the fact that the incidents occurred so late in the game and had such a dramatic impact on the result. For that, he should rightly have a case to answer - but that should take place behind closed doors, not in a TV interview. His post-match dressing down from the likes of Austin Healey left a sour taste in the mouth after what was a thrilling encounter between two exciting teams.

Technology could be the solution

So what can be done to make life a little easier for the officials and take a little pressure away from the decision-making process? Technology could provide the answer.

Refs are already able to call on the television match official (TMO) to check out incidents that occur during a match - in fact, TMOs will be in operation at every Premiership game this season, not just televised encounters.

It therefore doesn't seem like a huge stretch to give captains or coaches the ability to 'challenge' a decision - after all, similar systems have been adopted in cricket and tennis.

Rather than undermining the referee, rugby union's version of the Decision Review System (DRS) could help to eradicate the occasional 'clanger' and ensure that correct decisions are made more often. To stop captains using spurious, speculative reviews to give players a bit of a breather, or just in the vain hope that a try will be disallowed, they could be told to specify exactly what they're challenging - a knock-on in the build-up to a score or a clear case of blocking defenders, for instance.

Had Northampton been able to appeal against the crucial scrum penalty awarded against them at Kingsholm, there's a pretty good chance the TMO would have ruled in their favour, as it appears Gloucester number eight Ben Morgan allowed the ball to leave the scrum before kicking it back in.

Anything that makes a referee's job that little bit easier should be welcomed. And for an official, having a decision overturned is surely eminently preferable to having their performance torn apart in the days following a match.

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