Matt Butler: Only a close-up of a flanker's back? Ref-cam is TV history

View From The Sofa: Championship Rugby Union, Sky Sports 3
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The Independent Culture

History was made yesterday in Newcastle. But it was less a "where were you when..." moment than a "what was the point of that" episode. For yesterday, on the day Dean Richards made his televisual return as a coach, was the inaugural use of ref-cam on a rugby union field.

On the face of it, the idea of strapping a camera to a rugby union referee in the part of the season that, because of weather conditions, does everything to perpetuate the idea that the sport is unintelligible to vast swathes of the population, seemed a brilliant one. At last we would see what goes on when 16 blokes writhe around in the hope that an egg-shaped ball would pop out to a member of their shivering back line.

As the moment of kick-off between Newcastle Falcons and London Scottish loomed, the speculation mounted. What would we see? Would we gain an insight into a hitherto unknown, Narnia-style world that exists only in the breakdown area? Would we at last find out the complex and convoluted chain of events that must be set in motion for a referee to blow for offside? Or would we merely be treated to lingering shots of flankers', erm, flanks?

Then there was the deep irony of the choice of fixture, given that it was Richards' first appearance since the infamous Bloodgate scandal which engulfed Harlequins in 2009. Unbroadcast television footage was used to implicate Tom Williams in the blood capsule fakery, which led to the player's and Richards' banning. So with this added angle, who knows what sort of skulduggery may be unearthed in the future with a ref's-eye view of proceedings?

Five minutes into the presentation the official, Matt Carley, was pictured being strapped into the apparatus, which looked worryingly like a flak jacket. But after that brief peep into his dressing room, the chat went back to the presenter James Gemmell and his pundit Pat Sanderson. And the weather (windy) and ground conditions (muddy) were deemed more important than the piece of kit on Carley's chest.

The first live shot we were treated to was when Carley jogged out from the tunnel on to the field before kick-off. His view, for the curious among you, was of the Falcon open-side flanker Richard Mayhew's back. As the images were beamed to the nation – a little pixelated owing to the weather playing havoc with Sky's feed – the commentators trumpeted how rugby union is at the forefront when it comes to technology in sport. Unlike those football Luddites, the viewers collectively inferred. But where were the shots during the match? A good 20 minutes into the game we were yet to see a single picture from ref-cam. Anything – a scrappy ruck, a mediocre line-out – would have done.

But 21 minutes and 13 seconds into the match, we got it. It wasn't of earth-shattering significance, but it was a refreshing change of angle. In a break in play, while a line-out was being organised, we got a seasick-inducing shot of a couple of blokes ambling past Carley. Later in the match there were some tantalising scrum shots, but we saw nothing beyond the "crouch" command, as the forwards ducked out of shot. Carley would have had to crouch down if we were to gain any insight into the pack's machinations. But as they say – and as Sky must be hoping – history is sometimes made in the most mundane of moments.