Rugby Union: Men in the middle of an official revolution

Rugby's answer: More training and more technology is the way ahead, argues Brian Campsall; How to solve the white card trick
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IT IS ironic that rugby union, a sport which is chronically overrun by reactionaries, should seem more willing than most to use technology as a refereeing aid.

Brian Campsall, who is in his seventh season as an international referee, has witnessed a bewildering array of innovations since exchanging his playing career as a scrum-half with Yorkshire and Morley for a whistle 15 years ago.

But far from viewing it all with suspicion or resentment, Campsall believes it is in referees' best interests to use all the help they can get. Intriguingly, he is unconcerned that the question of using video evidence has inevitably arisen, as it has in other sports. "As technology advances, there are bound to be further refereeing developments. In South Africa they're going to experiment in domestic games with video replay as on important decisions," said Campsall a PE teacher from Yorkshire. "If that's a success they'll use it in the Super 12. I don't have strong views either way about using video evidence. They're talking about it in a number of sports. It's important to remember that we get just one split-second sighting of each incident whereas cameras can show it from 13 different angles."

But it is still possible for a referee's naked eye to overcome the odds stacked against him. "Ed Morrison produced a classic refereeing decision at an important moment during the South Africa-New Zealand Test in the recent Tri-Nations when he only had a fraction of a second to respond and got it completely right when he could so easily have been caught out. He did extremely well to get himself into a position to see what had happened, especially as neither of us touch-judges saw anything."

Recent innovations include linking referees by microphone with their touch-judges and a fourth official in charge of the replacements' benches; the creation of a similar link with TV commentators; the introduction of refereeing hand signals to clarify decisions; and the white-card system, which sin-bins players for 10 minutes and has had a far from smooth ride since its arrival this season. So far, it seems that some referees sin- bin players almost with relish, while others appear reluctant to invoke it at all.

However, it does seem to be determining some matches, as London Irish felt when they lost at Gloucester after the prop Peter Rodgers was red- carded for two sin-bin offences. At the time the Exiles' coach, Dick Best, said: "I can see a month of nonsense. The sin-bin needs to be clearly managed. We saw what happened when it was introduced in the southern hemisphere - a lot of people were binned. As the season progressed, the numbers went down as common sense came into the equation. That has to happen. I'm in favour of it as the game will be faster and more positive."

Campsall said: "It's too early to pass judgement on white cards, which are very much an experiment. It's intended to combine the yellow card, which was only concerned with persistent offending, with an appropriate punishment for foul play. The clubs wanted it and it has obviously been used to good effect in the Super 12. Players and referees need to get used to it and we've obviously got to review it eventually."

Campsall has learned his trade as an international official at a time of considerable change within the game, but he disagrees vehemently that the game is refereed differently in the southern hemisphere. "We're forever having conferences and meetings to iron out the grey areas in refereeing. It's a fallacy to talk about differing northern and southern hemisphere interpretations of the laws. We all agree to referee the same way and are governed by the same International Board.

"I go to the southern hemisphere a lot and have no problems refereeing there, although coaches sometimes think you have a different outlook. But we all know what it's like when the press speak to coaches immediately after a game and they often make comments which they later regret.

"The major grey area in refereeing world-wide at present is ensuring a fair contest at possession, or in other words in the tackle. The tackler must release the ball immediately and the person making the tackle must get up immediately.

"If he continues to lie there, he's having a negative effect on play. At the same time we all know that if a player is isolated when he's tackled he won't be in any hurry to release the ball. Therefore, the referee's always got to be continually up with play.

"That's why fitness is so important for referees nowadays. We run at pace between five and eight miles a game. That's a lot of ground to cover, almost as much as the players.

"I used to be a head of year at the school where I teach, but I had to give that up because refereeing at the top level is so time-consuming. We need to train three or four times a week and travelling takes time as well. For instance, next Saturday I'm doing the Gloucester-Wasps game, then I'm going midweek to Brive in France before returning for the Saracens game the following weekend."

To the intensity of such a schedule, which is remunerated only by match fees plus travel and accommodation expenses, is added the continual obligation on referees to explain themselves - to players, officials, spectators and TV audiences.

"Miking the referee up to television commentators isn't something new that's come in with Sky - it was introduced years ago when the Five Nations' Championship was still with the BBC.

"Three years ago in the southern hemisphere they introduced microphones so that both touch judges could communicate with the referee, and that is now standard practice for the Five Nations, Tri-Nations, Super 12 and all Allied Dunbar Premiership One games. We're hoping they'll be used for second division games eventually as well.

"In the major tournaments, all touch judges are international referees in their own right and the officials are referred to as teams of three - it's not just one referee and two linesmen.

"Because it isn't possible for referees to see everything, the touch judges keep an eye open for major issue like offside or foul play. If there's a problem in a certain area of the game these people will let you know. There are eight more people on the pitch in rugby than soccer, but the big thing about touch judges' involvement is that it keeps players on their toes. They're less likely to stray offside because they know they are being watched.

"At the moment the system is only one-way - the referee can hear the touch judges and the fourth official but he doesn't have to act on what they say. We're hoping to experiment with two-way systems. Some people think they could be a distraction to the referee but I think they can only be an advantage. Surely, the more information you get as a referee the better."