Eagle eyes of league have it

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The Independent Online
ONE OF Britain's leading rugby league referees, Stuart Cummings, says that his football counterparts have nothing to fear from technology. The 13-a-side game has long adopted measures to help the man in the middle that are only now being considered in other codes.

When Cummings goes out for a televised Super League game at Central Park or Headingley, he does so with an extra pair of eyes operating on his behalf. The video referee, sitting in the Sky TV production van, can be called on to adjudicate on any try-scoring controversy, while the crowd see slow-motion replays - but not necessarily the same pictures - on a big screen on the ground.

"I don't like refereeing games any more when the screen isn't there," says Cummings. "Without the screen, you get people with opinions on your decisions from 90 metres away. Hopefully, the screen shows that you've got it right."

Cummings refereed the first-ever Super League game, between Paris and Sheffield in 1996, that was also the first to feature the big screen and video referee. He called for an adjudication after 15 minutes and has done so whenever he has been in doubt since; particularly when a player touches down in the corner and the flag seems to be bent back.

The ground rules have changed since to allow incidents in the build-up to a try to be studied, but it is still those "close-call" decisions when bodies are flying in all directions that bring the system into play most often. "In-goal judges get it right about 75 per cent of the time; the video around 94 per cent," says Cummings, who would still like to see some refinements in the way the technology is used here.

"I've worked on Tests in Australia and their system is fantastic, because you can talk to the video ref and hear him talk back to you. They also have the facility to put the decision back to the referee if they can't be sure from the re-play."

Steve Ganson, a senior referee himself, has seen the system from the other end, because he has done duty as the video umpire. "There's no problem with the technology," he says. "It's only the person themselves who can create problems." The man in the van gets his pictures from Sky's producer but Ganson denies that television's influence extends beyond that. "You don't hear anything that is said by the commentators. People say that Sky makes the decisions, but that's not true."

Ganson and Cummings believe that football should embrace technology as rugby league has done. "Whatever you can use to eliminate mistakes, it has to be a good thing," says Cummings. One thing he has never had to worry about as a senior referee is keeping track of the time, because rugby league has long used separate timekeepers. I can't understand for the life of me why football refs have to do it. Referees are under so much pressure and managers are always having a go at them about how much time is left."

Rugby league has long employed a system of red and yellow cards, although there are frequent complaints that referees use the 10 minutes in the sin-bin - the consequence of a yellow - as a soft option.

Referees also have the option now of placing players on report when they are unsure of the precise nature of an incident. Cummings and his colleagues are accused of passing the buck when they resort to it.

The game has also experimented with four-way communication, the referee, touch judges and video official all being able to talk to each other. Cummings has already felt the benefit of that system, because he will in future be able to get his touch judge's view of an incident without having to take his own eyes off the play.