Talking Point: Speed up decisions or technology is a speed bump

rugby13 February 2024 07:40| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Referee, Nika Amashukeli © Gallo Images

Before Scotland were denied the try that should have won them their Six Nations clash with France, this was going to be about what regional/club rugby competitions and the recently concluded Betway SA20 could learn from each other. To some extent it still can be.Let’s go to the main point of what I was going to write. I am no big fan of the shortest form of cricket, mostly because I love Test cricket. That the longest form of the game and the truest test of a players’ ability is being subjugated to the 20 over game is a massive personal irritation. But no-one who attended one of the games played over the past month could deny the vibrancy and entertainment of a competition that captivated audiences and packed out stadiums.The operative phrase there is “the past month”. If the Betway SA20 was extended over several months like most of the professional rugby competitions, it is doubtful it would be as catchy, it is doubtful that stadiums would always be so full and so noisy. The uniqueness of the event would be eroded and much of the allure would disappear.


You don’t have to be one of those falling out of love with the sport to question whether there is too much rugby. Even some of the top coaches of my ken have admitted in conversation that because there is so much rugby they sometimes watch the first 10 to 15 minutes of a game to get the sense of it, and then switch off. Or watch it with only half an eye after that.It is not just because the concept of less is more works from an entertainment perspective that the NFL season in America is crammed into just four months. The length of the season is also dictated by the impact the sport has on players’ bodies. Concussion was a highly publicised issue in that sport long before it became the talking point it is now in rugby union.It is hard to see rugby ever moving to a four month season, and obviously that wouldn’t be good for my own livelihood, but a seven or eight month global season might kill a lot of birds with one stone. And if the players ever assume the power in rugby union that their counterparts in the NFL do, that’s what we might see happen.But here’s the problem: If you are looking at what might turn eyes off the sport, the macro issue just mentioned (the length of the season) is no more in need of review than the micro issues lovers of rugby are confronted with every week. Not only is the use of technology slowing down the game, operating as a speed bump to entertainment and tempo, it is also still applied subjectively.  Hence it does not provide anything like the perfect solution that was hoped for when the TMO was first introduced.


Not that it is a problem limited only to rugby. As a Liverpool supporter, I still look at the Premier League log and rue the points my team missed out on to an astounding VAR error, one admitted to later by the refereeing bosses when it was too late, in their game against Tottenham in London. Liverpool are leading as it stands, but they should be leading by more.And cricket’s TV Umpire isn’t beyond reproach for subjectivity either. It just so happened that around the same time I had been incensed by the TMO call in Edinburgh, I switched channels to the SA20 final at Newlands. Durban Supergiants captain Keshav Maharaj admittedly didn’t help himself by not being sure when he reached forward for one of those low catches that are difficult to adjudge, but commentators Shaun Pollock and Kevin Pietersen were right in my opinion to question whether the right call was made when the TV Umpire, after long deliberation, ruled it no catch.Why was Maharaj wringing his hands in obvious pain after the incident if he did not get his hands under the ball?Note I used the phrase “my opinion” when siding with Pollock and Pietersen. Which is the point: there are still humans involved, technology has not taken opinion out of it, it has not removed the debate, and even the try that should have been awarded in the Scotland/France game attracted some divided opinion even though it was, to me, so blindingly obvious an error on the TMO’s part not to award it.Again, there’s an operative phrase - “to me”. My question is: If there’s still going to be human error, is the cost of the introduction of technology, and for that read a slowed down game and the loss of the necessary spontaneity of celebration when you do get a wicket or score a try, really worth it?


The answer is that of course there has to be technology. But the process needs to be sped up. It took me two looks to decide that the ball had been grounded by Scotland. And maybe three, with the introduction of a different angle, to decide in favour of Maharaj. My guess is it took the same number of views for Pollock and Pietersen.Okay, so the Scotland score was at the end of the game. The replays probably added to the drama, which wasn’t a bad thing. But it’s not a good thing for rugby that there are so many stoppages, not only for the referees to consult but also for scrum re-sets. When a captain decides a tap penalty is a better option because a retaken scrum would leave you at the whim of the subjectivity of the referee’s perception, that’s not good.Everyone wants to get it right, and that takes time. It was great from a South African perspective that the Springboks won the second test against the British and Irish Lions in 2021, but the more than an hour it took for the first half to be concluded was not good for the sport.And if you think the shortest version of cricket is a sped up version of that sport you should think that one again too. A few weeks ago I was covering a rugby match at the same time as there was a Betway game in Johannesburg. At halftime of the rugby I switched to cricket and was pleased to note the first innings was into its 18th over. So it would mean I could see the innings to its conclusion and not miss any of the rugby. But that didn’t happen. Television replays drew it all out so that there were still three balls left at the Wanderers when the rugby restarted.


Neither sport helps itself by the referral of something that is obvious. In cricket that reference is to the run out that not even the fielding team appeals or celebrates but yet it still gets referred. What is wrong with the eyes of the modern umpires that they can’t see what was blindingly obvious and they ruled on in two seconds in the hundred years we had before technology?In rugby there are many instances where referees and TMOs confer on what should be obvious, but the players often don’t help the flow of the game either. My example here is the team that runs back to the halfway line to await the restart when they know the try they think they scored is being referred.Which so many tries are, which is the point about loss of spontaneity. These days a passionate supporter of a certain team daren’t celebrate a try with too much emotion and abandon as too often that celebration is cut short by the sight of the on-field referee moving towards the corner of the field where he can best view the big screen.Ironically, before technology the try that Scotland should have been awarded would not have been awarded as the referee Nic Berry’s decision was “on-field no try”. So there does have to be technology, but for goodness sake, there should be a time limit on decision making.When you watch a television replay what you see the first time you replay it is also what you see the second time you replay it and the third, fourth, fifth and so on and so on. The action is not going to change in another replay. So get the right angles at the start and set a time limit on how long it takes to make a decision. And if you can’t make your decisions quickly enough, don’t apply for the job.