While the demands on referees have never been higher, the level of patience with which we observe their work has never been lower. What was never a happy relationship is now an almost permanently hostile one and it can't be good for the game and its image.
I'm all in favour of controversy. After-match arguments are the spice of any game and of rugby in particular because there's so much more going on during play. In fact, as a newly established professional pundit, the more talking points there are the better I like it. But from what I've seen already this season I'm convinced that we have to start giving referees more help to do their job efficiently, especially when the decision involves a matter of fact and not opinion or interpretation.
At the Pontypridd-Bath European Cup clash last weekend what was a gripping game was soured by an early try awarded to Bath that was never a try. The Irish referee David McHugh was well placed but was wrong to rule that a chip through from Mike Catt had been grounded inside the dead-ball line by Richard Butland. Television replays from several angles proved the ball was over the back of the line when Butland touched it.
The mistake was evened out when Dafydd James scored a try for Pontypridd while his foot was on the touchline. But two wrongs don't make a right. There is so much at stake in these matches that faulty try decisions are unacceptable.
McHugh was also criticised for not adequately enforcing the new ruck and maul rules. Ponty were doing their best to adhere to them but Bath didn't seem that fussy and were not punished for it. Nothing can be done in that situation. We saw in this competition last season how refs from different countries applied their own interpretations and the only answer is for teams to adapt quickly to the referee's version. There is no point in moaning about it.
But when it comes to matter of fact there is much that can be done. Timekeeping, for a start, shouldn't be left to the ref's grasp of mental arithmetic. I'm surprised that rugby league's hooter system of independent timing hasn't been adopted by union, or football for that matter.
League have also made determined attempts to ensure that only the genuine tries count. They first came up with a new official called the in-goal judge stationed at either end and whose specific task was to adjudicate on borderline touchdowns. Since the Super League came in, the referee can call for a video review of a try by an off-field referee able to watch the replays and make the decision.
In-goal judges add to the expense. It makes five officials per game to be paid a fee and expenses. The video is more efficient and it wouldn't matter that most union grounds are not equipped with large screens. The crowd don't need to see the replay. The ref could be linked up to his colleague stationed by a screen in the stand and request his advice on whether the touchdown was legal. He could get an answer in a matter of seconds. It would still be his decision but at least he would have the benefit of being better informed and far fewer mistakes would occur.
I am not sure if the video help should be taken further. There was another controversy last weekend surrounding the Harlequins skipper Keith Wood who had to leave the field after being punched by the Munster captain, Mick Galwey. The French ref merely took Galwey's name so the Quins lost their leader while the man responsible stayed on the field. That can't be right. Access to a replay might have alerted the referee to the seriousness of the offence.
But a dithering referee would be forever calling for video assistance so perhaps it ought to be retained only for dodgy tries. It wouldn't take much organising but would be worthwhile if we took the guesswork out of the most vital part of a match.Reuse content