By Christopher Gall – Thompson Rivers University JD Student
Rugby is a sport on the rise. It has benefited immensely from rejoining the Olympic Games after a 92-year absence. This has provided the sport additional funding from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and improved its credibility with government agencies. Further, Rugby is reaching out to build its fan base beyond its core markets. An excellent example is that the 2019 Rugby World Cup will be hosted by Japan.
One serious problem the sport faces currently, centers around video refereeing. Back in 2013 the administrative body World Rugby expanded the domain of the Television Match Officials (the fancy title given to instant replay staff) to include defensive infringements and serious fouls which is a significant move beyond disputable tries. While the policy has had the positive outcome of bringing more accurate calls on to the field, it comes at a steep cost—further inhibiting the sluggish pace of the game.
To break down the actual numbers, reviews used to average 85 seconds with 0.75 plays reviewed per match. So far this year that figure has more than tripled to 2.41. No other team sport outside of the competing rugby league (known as rugby league) comes anywhere close. The opening match of the World Cup on 18 September 2015 utilized six referrals and paused play for close to ten minutes while decisions were contemplated. As a result, the league faced significant criticism and issued an official statement on September 21st defending the replay policy.
To set the stage: During a quarterfinal match where Australia knocked Scotland out with a provocative penalty kick. The official, Craig Joubert, awarded the penalty after witnessing a Scottish player fumble the ball forwards into the open arms of a teammate. Unfortunately, what he missed in that fraction of a second was a deflection off an opposing player—which should have resulted in a scrum. The ref was prohibited from consulting with Television Match Officials as no foul play was involved. Unfortunately, the 80,000 fans in attendance and Mr. Joubert had to watch his mistake in slow motion as it was broadcast on the jumbotron.
Employing human referees always will result in a margin of error with the officiating. Rugby would do well to take note of other governing bodies who have banned the showing of replays on contentious calls inside the stadium—especially if the official has not had the benefit of viewing the footage themselves. There is an important balance to be struck between transparency and maintaining fair play. Officials can often feel pressure to provide a makeup call to the team who was slighted by the initial bad call thereby only compounding the issue.
Rugby could benefit from a single replay center as is found in many North American sport leagues and has been adopted by Australasia’s National Rugby League (which has been able to halve its review time). Maintaining the flow of play is critically important. One way to do this that has been successfully utilized elsewhere is to employ challenges where a captain can request a second opinion until the decision is upheld upon review, whereby the right to further challenges is then forfeited.