Rugby League was one of the very first sports to add video technology in an attempt to advance the Super League game. Sports have progressed into the technological age ever since the likes of a third umpire (cricket), a video review (tennis) and a television match official (Rugby Union). But, with other sports seemingly going forwards and improving with all the new-age enhancements, rugby league is somewhat at a stalemate with the use of the video referee continuing to draw severe criticism. Is it time for it to go?
Difficulty of refereeing
As a fan, when your team has lost, it tends to be the referee’s fault regardless of how well your team has played. Referees on the field are in an isolated and unforgiving position and, whether the referee’s performance warrants it or not, vitriol from both sets of supporters is continuously aimed at the men in the middle.
In real time, referees are bound to make mistakes. One needs to have eyes everywhere, watching the play-of-the-ball, the defensive line for offside, the attacking team for obstructions etc. They are not helped by their linesmen who are afraid to make a decision and whom, 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; better to be safe than sorry right?
Video referees have time
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. With this in mind, the video referee can help to a great extent, using video evidence to either support the referee’s initial decision or to overturn it. It is these ingenuous camera angles and continuous replays that allows video referees 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, appeared absent.
Too much time
But herein lies the problem. In the past few seasons, the British game has adopted the rule – used in the Australian game, the NRL – that the on-field referee makes a decision (try or no try) and that the video referee needs “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, in order to account for lengthier stoppages in play.
Some 8pm kick-offs in 2017 resulted in matches ending past 10pm as a result of the overuse of, or over-analysis by, the video referee. That is over two hours. Matches should last approximately 80 minutes with a 15-20-minute half-time interval; to have a game smashing the 120-minute mark is utterly ridiculous.
Took the video ref FOUR whole minutes to agree with Referee's original call over in Rugby League tonight.
Still want it in football? 😏 pic.twitter.com/Fo4g7tRhcH
— Coral (@Coral) September 29, 2017
The idea also that the referee gives a try/no try verdict on the field which the video referee then has to find the evidence to overrule, is a complete joke. If a referee does not have the confidence to make a decision for then it should be up to the video referee alone to decide on the issue in question.
The fact that the video referee almost has to rely on the decision made on the field – which let’s be fair is 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 acceded to the referee’s call, despite there being little “substantial evidence” that the try had been scored at all. Take the next video for example. This was actually given, yes given, as a try by the video referee because he could not find anything “substantial” to overrule the on-field decision of try.
Also, it seems strange to check certain rules and not others when video referees review a possible try. For example, why is a forward pass not allowed to be adjudged? 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.
Maybe this will force them to change the rule. If the video referee can see a forward pass quite clearly they should be able to give it.
— Ellen Fay (@EllenFay7) September 8, 2016
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 have been 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 from: only back to the play-of-the-ball or to the start of the set of possession that led to the try? The latter would clear up any grey area, but would make the length of the match even more ridiculous than what happens with Sky matches currently.
All or none at all
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 need to issue 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 things to look out for, the video review can alleviate some of this pressure. The use of the video referee used to be exciting and innovative, initially creating drama amongst every spectator – whether in the stadium or at home. People literally held their breath as they waited to see the verdict.
Nowadays, its use feels worn out. The RFL need to pull their finger out and give the technology some consistency. If video referees are here to stay, put them at every match and please, just please, get rid of the on-field verdict and allow the video referee alone to make a decision.