Peter Bills: Refereeing protocol rules over common sense

Two men made serious blunders at Cardiff last Saturday that directly influenced the outcome of the Wales v Ireland match. But neither of them was the referee.

One was Irish fly half Jonathan Sexton, an undistinguished second half substitute, and the other was Scottish assistant referee Peter Allen. Between them, they brought chaos to an international match.

Sexton erred by kicking the ball out on the full after 49 minutes. Then Allen made the crass error of losing concentration, failing to follow the flight of the ball so that he would have seen the same ball was clearly not used for the quick throw-in for Mike Phillips’ try that proved the crucial difference in the match.

Allen was said afterwards to be distraught at his blunder and personally apologised to Irish coach Declan Kidney for the error. But by then, of course, it was far too late.

But the real culprits of an incident that made international rugby union a laughing stock were those who wrote the rules. For one official must have seen the whole incident unfold, must have known instantly a gross miscarriage of justice was being enacted and yet could say absolutely nothing about it.

That person was the Television Match Official (TMO) and furthermore, he was wired up to communicate with South African referee Jonathan Kaplan. So why on earth didn’t he say something and stop such a nonsensical situation ensuing?

The answer is, that sacred cow ‘rugby protocol’. The TMO is not allowed to interfere in such a situation, not allowed to say clearly to the referee ‘NO TRY, because it was not the same ball used’. Similarly, it is my understanding that the referee is not entitled to ask the TMO whether he should award the try because he was unsure whether the same ball had been used for the quick throw-in.

That is deemed too far back in the movement, therefore off-limits in the world of the International Rugby Board.

No-one involved in running the game, it seems, wants that sort of common sense to intrude into the strict rules.

Had he been doing his job properly, as I am sure he was, the TMO must have seen the lunacy unfolding. Yet officials in Cardiff on Saturday night told me that had the TMO interfered, he would have been lambasted by his bosses and caused a diplomatic storm.

So he said nothing and a try that never was, was allowed to stand. Bewildered? Welcome to the strange world of international rugby.

In the eyes of those who make the rules, it is far more important that an official follows to the letter the detail of his job description and does not step beyond those parameters. The fact that he could have saved the game from farce was, in the eyes of the authorities, far less important than the dreaded scenario in which he would have disregarded protocol.

You see, nothing is more important in rugby than that every official does exactly as they are told, they follow their brief to the letter and never overstep the boundaries of their pre-assigned task.

How daft is that? Well, the desire to arrive at the correct decision was sacrificed on the altar of their own petty rules of engagement.

It HAS to be simple common sense that if a TMO sees an alarming, totally wrong decision such as this one being made (and by the way, don’t blame Jonathan Kaplan...he carefully asked his assistant if it was the same ball that had been kicked out, and the guy erroneously said ‘Yes’) he should be allowed to draw the referee’s attention to it.

Some have suggested Kaplan was at fault. But that's rubbish. Are they saying he should have suggested his assistant referee was a liar and he didn't believe him? Should they have had a stand-up argument out on the field while everyone else waited to see if the try had been awarded? Such an idea is nonsensical.

The assistant referee gave a clear and firm 'yes' when asked if it was the same ball. Kaplan could therefore do nothing else but award the try.

But the real issue at stake here is this. In life, you can’t be half pregnant and the IRB, like FIFA in professional soccer, has to learn that you can’t half embrace technology, yet ignore it when it is most needed.

What happened in Cardiff was a gross miscarriage of justice. But it is the lawmakers who should carry the can. Most importantly, their rules should be re-written in the light of this nonsense.

Hopefully, in time for the Rugby World Cup later this year. Or will certain matches there be allowed to end in similar farce?


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