Can VAR learn from Rugby’s TMO?

By Rhys Jones

Image credit: SounderBruce via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Can VAR learn from Rugby?

VAR made its Premier League debut this season and to say its been controversial would be an understatement. Much like political and economic news being dominated by Brexit this year, footballing headlines have been dominated by VAR controversies.

Rugby’s VAR equivalent TMO (Television Match Official) is something that Rugby Union has improved over time since its inception in 2001 and has become a great tool for match officials in the game today. This isn’t to say its without its imperfections and critics, largely from supporters, players and coaches who feel a decision against their side was unjust, which is to be expected.
This is exactly what technology in sport is always going to do, technologies like VAR and the TMO were introduced to limit human error (i.e. the referee making an incorrect decision), and this will naturally always split the respective fan bases.

But Rugby’s technology has of course been around a lot longer than VAR, and so it might be helpful for the Premier League to look at how rugby has employed its TMO in order to improve VAR.

Keep the crowd informed

One of the reasons that this is more effective in rugby is due to fans remaining engaged with the decision-making process. When an incident occurs the refereeing team will view the incident on the big screens within the stadium until a decision is reached.
Fans in the stadium are therefore able to watch the incident alongside the referee and TMO, and those who have purchased ref link technology can listen to the referee’s conversation – just like those watching at home can.

Fans can understand the thought process of the officials and this keeps them in informed of why a specific decision has been reached. If a try has been ruled out because of a forward pass or knock-on, fans will be aware of exactly why the try was disallowed.

A possible downside to this is because a referee will be wearing a microphone, it will pick up what players are saying. Which is a bit more of a problem in football than it is in rugby. We constantly see football officials swarmed by players and it’s clear they don’t command the respect that rugby referees do. This is something former Premier League official Matt Messias has touched upon.

“No. And my reason is because footballers talk in a different language to rugby players,” said Messias when asked if referees should wear microphones. “You would be able to pick up on the referee’s microphone and you would hear everything that players would say to the referee.

Teamwork

Rugby matches consist of a referee and two touch judges/assistant referees, alongside a TMO. Premier League matches have a referee and two linesmen/assistant referees, a fourth official, and now the video assistant referee. But consultation between referees has become common practice in the game.

The TMO or assistant referees will not hesitate to bring up a potential foul to the referee in the middle of play and will share their own opinion and view on something the referee might not have seen.

Take this as an example from a PRO 14 match between Cardiff Blues and Ospreys in 2019, where Scott Baldwin pushes Blues player Seb Davies off the ball in build play. Referee Nigel Owens stops play for a deliberate knock-on but TMO Ian Davis calls play back to the obstruction that occurred earlier in play, which resulted in a break for Ospreys Fullback Dan Evans.

This is a great example of how teamwork in rugby leads to more accurate decisions. Owens has the final say on whether he believes the obstruction to be worthy of a penalty or call a foul for the knock-on that occurred later in the play, but he takes the TMO’s opinion onboard and reaches a decision himself.

This begs the question of if replays aren’t being shown on big screens, why aren’t the Premier League using pitchside monitors for referees? Although they were recently encouraged to use them for exceptional incidents, giving the referee the ability to instantly review a decision will help VAR go along way.

Communication

Communication is vital referees in rugby, they will make an on-field decision of their own and will then confer with the TMO and their assistant referee(s) to confirm if their decision is correct.

In last weekend’s Six Nations match between Scotland and France, French prop Mohamed Haous was red carded for a punch on Scotland back rower Jamie Ritchie. After a scuffle between the two sides occurs referee Paul Williams asks the TMO to show the incident, after seeing Haouas’ punch on Ritchie, Williams has a relatively simple decision to make which is to send the Frenchman off.

Even with the simplicity of the decision he still confers with assistant referee Wayne Barnes to check his own opinion before sending the player off.

This communication between officials help keep consistency clarity in decisions, often we see referees give a foul for something, but failed to award a foul when the same or similar thing occurs later in the game. Keeping this communication can help to diminish that.

Ultimately despite its benefits, the TMO is still not a perfect tool and has its downsides much like VAR, it still produces questionable decisions. But VAR is good for the game of football and once the process in the Premier League becomes more efficient and streamlined, the benefits of it will start to show. Neither the TMO or VAR can guarantee perfect decision making, but fan experience will improve drastically.

For more Rugby content check out Rhys Jones’ piece on Joe Marler and Alun Wyn Jones.

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