Game tarnished by criticism, says O'Brien

Give us more TV help - or let us get on with it, argues top referee.
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The Independent Online

The world's top rugby referee believes the use of video replays to settle disputed decisions should be increased, or dispensed with altogether. Paddy O'Brien, the New Zealander who will preside over this afternoon's Twickenham set-to between England and France, also wants coaches held more accountable for their post-match comments. He was upset at the scathing criticism directed at officials by Scotland's coach, Matt Williams, after last weekend's Six Nations' Championship opener in Paris.

The world's top rugby referee believes the use of video replays to settle disputed decisions should be increased, or dispensed with altogether. Paddy O'Brien, the New Zealander who will preside over this afternoon's Twickenham set-to between England and France, also wants coaches held more accountable for their post-match comments. He was upset at the scathing criticism directed at officials by Scotland's coach, Matt Williams, after last weekend's Six Nations' Championship opener in Paris.

O'Brien, a 45-year-old former police detective, has handled 36 international matches, more than any other active referee. He viewed with acute concern the immediate aftermath of the Scots' 16-9 defeat, when an incensed Williams queried why the Irish touch judge, Simon McDowell, was continuing to get international appointments. "Referees get paid and we shouldn't be sheltered from criticism," said O'Brien, "but it has got to be controlled. The big incident was a foot in touch leading to what would have been a try for Scotland. The person with the best view was the touch judge. He was right there and you don't put your flag up unless it was out. End of story.

"My criticism of Matt Williams is that he was very emotional at the time. It was wrong because the referee has no comeback. And it does damage to the game at large. If we're not careful, we won't have any referees. Why would Joe Bloggs, when he reads or hears this criticism, want to put himself up to do the same job?"

Williams will not be censured for his outburst by the Scottish Rugby Union, and there has been no word as yet from the International Rugby Board. The Northampton coach, Budge Pountney, has been charged by the RFU with "conduct prejudicial to the game" for alleged remarks made about the referee, Steve Lander, at last week's Zurich Premiership match against Saracens.

The latter's then coach Rod Kafer was banned for six weeks last season for verbal abuse of a referee and fourth official. These incidents remain rare in rugby, where respect for the referee is held up as a sporting model.

And O'Brien, whose status is reflected in his appointment to handle next month's North v South Tsunami Relief match, is keen to keep it that way. "The current code of conduct needs to have more teeth. The way to give it teeth is to have fines. In Australian rugby league it's 'bang', 10,000 dollars if you have a crack at a referee after a game."

O'Brien, the Pierluigi Collina of rugby, only with slightly more hair, welcomes the increased dialogue between players, coaches and referees in the open era.

All the Six Nations' coaches met with the referees for the first two rounds of the Six Nations before the start of this year's event. Before any Test, the respective coaches will consult with the referee on areas of concern, often bringing along video evidence of previous fixtures. O'Brien met Andy Robinson last Tuesday evening, allowing the England coach to work on specifics such as presentation of the ball at the tackle well before getting to Twickenham.

But with upwards of 20 cameras covering every angle at a top match, and television companies and press demanding immediate comment, the pressure on a referee's judgement is growing by the day. Many believe the solution is to broaden the scope of the television match official (TMO), or video referee, as in cricket. O'Brien, perhaps surprisingly, agrees, and argues the gainsayers have nothing to worry about.

"As the strict protocol stands, the only time the TMO can look at touch is when it's in the act of scoring a try - not back near the 22, as the Scotland incident was. You can also check whether a shot at goal went over or not.

"But what is the difference between a guy putting his foot on the line near the 22 and a guy doing it in the act of scoring? Personally, I say they spend so much money on technology, that if the result of a game hinges on a call, we should use it. Or get rid of it altogether, and go back to the game played by humans and refereed by humans. I think we've only gone half-way. That's very much a personal view and not anyone else's.

"The moment you bring up the argument, administrators talk about replaying every line-out or scrum. Their misconception is that games would go on forever, that it would be like American football. That's ridiculous.

"We're talking about the crunch decisions. In the whole of last year there were only three occasions when I'd love to have used the TMO, but couldn't. One was when I wasn't sure if the ball had come off a guy's knee or whether he'd knocked on. Because I can't guess, I had to let it go. If it did turn out we were using the video too much, and it's not the answer, get rid of it. The two words missing in the lawbook are common sense. Sometimes we get our knickers in a twist when we don't have to."

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