Rugby was one of the first major sports to embrace video referees, and as a sport it is all the better for it.
With only five minutes remaining against New Zealand, England’s Sam Underhill was rightly disallowed his try. It was clear and obvious that Courtney Laws was never onside, so what’s the problem with the use of a television match official? Had TMO not be available England would have undoubtedly won a game in which they gave away a fifteen-nil advantage in the second half.
Whether it is the closing minutes of a game, a potential red card, or a decision that will ultimately decide a World Cup winner, modern rugby players are faster and stronger than ever, and this brings greater ambiguity for referees. These elements necessitated a need for technology within rugby, ensuring that in times of uncertainty a decision is as accurate as possible.
Admittedly, there has been occasions in which it seems to be overused and play can sometimes feel disjointed. However, for the most part I believe it is used successfully and more often than not it positively contributes to the game. The ability for a referee to communicate with their fourth official, asking them to look back and review potential foul play whilst the game continues, actually results in the game having greater flow. Without this ability rugby would only be slower and more disjointed, negatively affecting the game for players and spectators alike.
Instead I argue that the culpability of recent decision quarrels lies not with the use or abilities of the TMO, but with the twisted complexion of current laws. A clear example of this being the discrepancies around lawful and unlawful tackles. The contact nature of rugby is one of greatest attractions and few things can motivate teammates or give crowds more satisfaction than seeing and hearing an almighty collision. However, everyone knows that the dangers are all too clear. With head injuries and player’s safety being of paramount importance to the rugby community, clarity around the height of acceptable tackles must be dictated and applied consistently. With clear guidelines, the TMO can then successfully be implemented as and when referees see fit.
After all, the fourth official is there to aid the referee, checking and reviewing play that they themselves choose to be uncertain. Above all else, referees need confidence in their ability to facilitate the game and a review system only supports this endeavour.