CALLUM WALKER, the author of ‘Cas Tigers – The Breakthrough Year’, wonders whether it’s time to do away with the video referee in Rugby League or to change the video-refereeing procedure
Rugby League was one of the very first sports to use video technology to assist match officials’ decision making. It began in the UK with the Super League competition that was created in 1996.
Since then, other sports have progressed into the technological age with the likes of a third umpire (cricket), a video review (tennis) and a television match official (rugby union). Even football fans have been clamouring for video technology in recent years.
But, with other sports seemingly making headway and improving with all the new-age evolution, Rugby League supporters still have mixed feelings, and the use of the video referee continues to draw severe criticism.
So, maybe now is the time to ask whether it is time for the video referee to go.
On the other hand, could it be time for it to expand?
Here are both sides of that debate.
Refs get the blame
Fans often blame the referee for their team’s defeat, regardless of its performance.
Referees are in an isolated and unforgiving position and, whether their performance warrants it or not, vitriol from both sets of supporters is always aimed at the men in the middle.
In real time, referees are bound to make mistakes. They need to have eyes everywhere: watching the play-of-the-ball, the defensive line for offside, the attacking team for obstructions and so on.
They are not helped by their touch-judges, who are afraid to make a decision and who, more often than not, just stand idly on the touchline, cowering under the pressure of the fans behind them. Therefore, the video referee can come in handy when the on-field referee is unsure in the heat of the moment. After all, surely it’s better to be safe than sorry!
Time on their side
Whilst the man with the whistle sees things in the blink of an eye, the man ‘upstairs’ has the benefit of multiple camera angles, slow motion, and zoomed-in views.
He can use video evidence to either support the referee’s initial decision or to overturn it, using continuous replays that allow him to scan, frame by frame, the intricate details of a potential try. And, with these replays, video referees find evidence that, to the naked eye and in real time, might not be seen.
Too much time
But herein lies the problem. In the past few seasons, the British game has adopted a rule used in the NRL. This is that the on-field referee makes a decision (try or no try) and then the video referee needs to find “substantial evidence” to overturn the referee’s initial view.
This has sometimes led to a farcical amount of time being spent trying to find this “evidence”. Indeed, from the 2018 season onwards, Thursday and Friday night matches, live on Sky Sports, will no longer kick off at 8pm, but at 7:45pm, at least partially to account for lengthier stoppages in play.
Some 8pm kick-offs in 2017 even resulted in matches ending past 10pm as a result of the excessive analysis by the video referee. That is over two hours. Matches should last approximately 80 minutes with a 15-20-minute half-time interval. But to have a game smashing the 120-minute mark is utterly ridiculous.
The idea also that the referee gives a try/no try verdict on the field, which the video referee then has to find evidence to overrule, is surely a complete joke. If a referee does not have the confidence to make a decision, then it should be up to the video referee alone to decide on the issue in question.
That the video referee almost has to rely on the decision made on the field, which may be a guess if the referee isn’t sure, makes a mockery of the whole video referee system. In their quest to find “substantial evidence” to overrule the referee, video referees have often accepted the referee’s call, despite there being little “substantial evidence” that the try had been scored or not scored at all.
It also seems strange to check certain things and not others when video referees review a possible try.
For example, why is a forward pass not allowed to be judged? The momentum claim is a load of manure; the TMO in Rugby Union can rule a forward pass, so why can’t the same happen in League? Just look at how the player’s hands move when offloading the ball: if the player’s hands go in a forward motion, it is a forward pass. Simple!
Furthermore, when a try is being looked at, where should a video referee draw the line?
Take this for example: an attacking player knocks on, but the defending team were offside, which went unseen by the referee. The defending team now pounces on the ball and scores in the same play. The referee goes to the screen, but the video referee cannot adjudge whether the defending team had been offside or not because the attacking team had knocked on.
Yet, if the attacking team had kicked the ball to score in the corner, the first thing to be reviewed would have been the onside/offside aspect of the try scorer when the kick took place. Why is one offside more important than another?
There is also the debate over where to start the video review. Should it only go back to the play-the-ball or to the start of the set of possession that led to the try? The latter would clear up any grey areas, but would make the length of the match even more ridiculous than what happens with Sky matches currently.
All or nothing
This brings up another pertinent point; video referees should either be present at all matches, regardless of whether or not they are broadcast live on Sky, or not at all.
Time and again there are try or no-try decisions made by referees in non-televised games that, if a video referee had been present, would have been overruled. And, in televised games, there are try or no-try decisions given that, if there had been no video referee present, would have been left up to the on-field referee to make a split-second decision. Perhaps it would be the wrong decision, but at least the game could flow more.
The RFL needs to create some clarity. It is not fair on the four teams on Sky in one week to be scrutinised at every possible opportunity, whilst the other eight ‘make do’ with split-second decisions. And, it is not fair on the eight teams not on Sky in one week that they do not have the possibility of obtaining a decision that, with the technology, would have gone in their favour.
In the 21st century, video referees do perhaps have a place in Rugby League.
With on-field referees subject to ever increasing demands and a need to keep an eye on almost every corner of the pitch, the video review can alleviate some of this pressure. The use of the video referee used to be exciting and innovative, initially creating drama for spectators, whether in the stadium or at home. People literally held their breath as they waited to see the verdict on the big screen.
Nowadays, however, its use feels worn out. The RFL should pull its finger out and create some consistency. If video referees are here to stay, put them at every match.
In the World Cup, each game has had a “man upstairs” and they have offered clarity when needed. For example, in the England-Lebanon game a few weeks ago, video-referee Phil Bentham was needed to both confirm on-field referee Ben Thaler’s decision of try for Nick Kassis’ effort and overturn Thaler’s no try decision for Jason Wehbe.
But this again raises yet another important issue.
Bentham found “substantial evidence” to overturn Thaler’s original decision. However, what if there was only some evidence to overturn the ruling but it was not “substantial”? Very likely, the initial decision would have stood, resulting in potential controversy. Please, just please, if the video referee is here to stay, get rid of the on-field verdict and allow the video-referee alone to make a decision.
‘Cas Tigers – The Breakthrough Year’, an account of Castleford Tigers’ historic 2017 season, is available at //shop.totalrl.com/product/castigers/
Callum Walker will be writing regularly for Totalrl.com