For many years, especially in commercial terms, we’ve been told that where football leads rugby will inevitably follow.
That was certainly the case with professionalism, matchday hospitality, varied kick-off times at the behest of TV broadcast contracts and seasonal launches of playing kit. As Nigel Owens has told errant players on more than one occasion: “This is not football,” though you could argue that player dissent has also unfortunately started to make the journey from round ball to oval ball.
But now there is a case where rugby has blazed a trail for its bigger brother to follow with the adoption of television assistance for match officials.
The TMO – “the man in the caravan” as Cockers used to describe him – has been a significant part of top-flight rugby for a long time. Barely a game goes by without the input from a man sat in front of the TV screens.
Its role has been accepted over time and the only real criticism from supporters comes when their numerous referrals give the impression that the TMO is the most important official in the game, even though he’s not watching it in unfold ‘live’ in front of him. Using multiple angles, slow motion and live time, while being directed via microphone by the referee, it can take a while to reach a decision. It is tough to criticise the officials, though, when we all want the correct decision to be made and have the technology in place to assist.
Football – or a number of selected games anyway – has now adopted a Video Assisted Review (VAR) to check key decisions on the field.
Goalline technology was resisted for many years when it looks easy to install, operate and consult at the top level, and in the 100mph version of the modern game, with huge monetary stakes in the outcome of every fixture, the only surprise is that it has taken this long to get this far.
The VAR system has been used in a sample of fixtures over the last couple of weeks, including the semi-finals of the League Cup and Leicester City’s FA Cup replay.
Football, for the moment, stops short of rugby’s clarity. While the sport has for many years used ‘trial by television’ for off-the-ball incidents not picked up by match officials on the day, the VAR involvement is currently limited to ‘clear and obvious’ errors by officials at key stages of the game.
In its opening week, the major comment in the media was that match officials would have to reconsider their ‘finger in the ear’ signal to the VAR to get involved. If that was the only talking point to come from the addition of new technology then you’d have to wonder what all the fuss was about.
Then Leicester City saved the day when they had a goal ‘given’ by the TV official after initially being flagged for offside. But now managers and pundits are raging about whether the experiment is working or not.
Unlike their rugby counterparts, however, football referees are alone in reviewing any footage, using a pitchside monitor rather than the stadium’s big screens. The result is that they have the advice of only one man in their ear and miss out on all of that impartial guidance from the crowd. Where's the fun in that!