Video Referees – Are They Needed?

Published in Rugby League World in 2010

HERE are some stats to warm you up.

In the 60 regular-round games of Super League that were shown on Sky Sports in 2010, the video referee was called upon 175 times. In those 27 rounds, there was not one game where the fourth official was not consulted at least once. Those 175 decisions took over three hours in total – 188 minutes to be precise.

The video referee was introduced to the Northern Hemisphere game in 1996 and was first used in Super League’s inaugural game in Paris, as the host team famously defeated Sheffield Eagles. It was the brainchild of Neville Smith, Rugby League’s top man at Sky Sports, with Maurice Lindsay, the game’s chief executive, needing little persuasion to have it introduced. Clamour for the facility had heightened the year before, when Martin Offiah was denied a try in the World Cup Final, something he complained about bitterly in front of the nation at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year programme, little over three months before one of the game’s most exciting innovations for years was eventually wheeled out.

In the ensuing 15 years, its function has remained largely unchanged, but gradual changes have been made along the way. For instance, in the early days, if a try was scored on the fifth tackle, a referee could ask the video official to go all the way back to the first tackle to check for a possible infringement, something which was largely derided. In that first season, it was most famously used to adjudicate that Apollo Perelini had indeed scored a vital late try against London Broncos, as St Helens snatched a narrow late-season win which contributed heavily to them pipping Wigan to the title by a solitary point. But the decision caused controversy at the time with Terry Matterson sin-binned for arguing with Stuart Cummings over the legality of the four-pointer.

At the end of the season, Sky’s veteran pundit, Mick Stephenson, commented: “It’s been a tremendous innovation. I’ve always thought that referees need help and they got it this season. Quite a few decisions went right down to the wire and without the technology, we couldn’t have been given the correct decision. Without the slow-motion replay [of the Perelini try], I don’t think anybody would have been capable of coming up with the right decision. It probably won Saints the championship.”

As things currently stand, the video referee is employed in both domestic and international games televised live by Sky Sports and the BBC, and in Catalans Dragons home fixtures which are televised live across the Channel, as well as in all NRL games. In these games, the in-goal judges, who are used in all non-televised matches, are not used. But with the novelty having long worn off, the concept has, over the last few years, begun to attract doubters. One of them is Lindsay himself, who complained last year about the time the video referee sometimes takes to reach its decisions.

“The video referee has become a joke,” he said. “Apologies for the brief history lesson, but this started with myself and Neville Smith, at Sky, who came to me with the idea and we talked about it. We were so keen on it that we contributed, I think, £200,000 for it in the first year towards the installations etc. Sky now pick up the total cost but we used to share it at first.

“I thought it was fabulous at first because some major games have been lost, including at Wembley, because of doubtful decisions so it was good to do something about that. The principle is sound but the implementation has got out of hand. There has to be more common sense because some of the decisions are taking far too long now. The referees also must have the bottle to award the try because they’re using the video referee for too many decisions that don’t need a second look. Just like the on-report system, they’re bottling out. And after showing the first replay that comprehensively proves the decision one way or another, why do they have to carry on looking at the other angles? In Australia, they’ll often just look once and give it. I think it’s got out of hand to be honest. We’re starting to alienate the customers – some games the video refs are used up to ten times and you can hear the groans from the crowd.”

In fairness to the RFL, the longest decisions this year have been around the three-minute mark. Lindsay’s comments came a few months after one of Super League’s most infamous video decisions, when a possible Jamie Peacock try in a Leeds-Wigan play-off game required over five minutes’ deliberation, with the crowd audibly frustrated and the players having to conduct another brief warm-up. This year’s average decision took a far more acceptable 64 seconds to make.

Earlier this year, Tony Smith, the coach of Warrington, spoke out – not for the first time – against the use of video referees, going so far as to call for them to be scrapped from the game altogether. His comments came after a wonderful ding-dong early-season clash with Wigan, with a crucial late call – a David Solomona no try – correctly going against Smith’s side. Smith, though, was careful to point out that that night’s decisions hadn’t prompted his outburst, pointing to a disallowed Ryan Hudson try against his side a week earlier. That his comments came in just round three of Super League perhaps indicates that the fact that a number of 2009 showpiece games included a controversial video refereeing decision maybe influenced his opinion. Those games included the Challenge Cup final (twice, although he benefited from both dubious decisions), the Super League Grand Final, the Four Nations Final, the ANZAC Test down under and the first State of Origin, as well as a mid-season top-of-the-table clash between St George and Canterbury which kicked off a row that seemed to last for weeks in the Australian media.

“I think they’re boring and they’re a big momentum drop in games,” Smith said. “From most of the Rugby League I watch, when there’s two in-goal judges, two touch judges and a referee [non-televised games], they get it right most of the time. I’m over the video ref and have been for a long time. In our last game against Cas, I got bored waiting for a decision which went on for three minutes. I nearly had to do another warm-up with my players. It creates as much controversy as it fixes up in my opinion. You guys [the media] still aren’t sure about a few decisions, so does it clear things up or create more [problems]? I think it creates more and stops the momentum of the game. I don’t think we’re any worse off without them. I know some people would be crying to death if we lost the video ref, but I’m not a fan of it.”

Smith’s stance is perhaps backed up by the fact that well over 30 decisions last season, in just the 60 regular-round games, were still being hotly debated after several replays. Whether a decision is wrong or not often boils down to a personal opinion, and I believe that of the 175 decisions, 24 were dubious and eight were definitely wrong – but I am willing to accept that others would invariably argue with some of those. On the other hand, I believed that Liam Watts’s winning try in the last ten minutes of the early-season Castleford-Hull KR game, which was hotly disputed by a scathing Tigers’ coach Terry Matterson, was a fair try.

Those eight ‘wrong’ decisions include a try awarded ludicrously – again, that’s just my opinion – to Ali Lauitiiti in the opening Super League game of the season for Leeds against the Crusaders. And the last decision that left me scratching my head in bemusement was a try awarded to St Helens’s James Roby, also in north Wales. There were even two instances within 25 minutes of one St Helens game that attracted incredulity from the game’s leading broadcasters, with Terry O’Connor describing a Kyle Eastmond no-try call against Salford as a ‘shocking decision’ and Eddie Hemmings later calling the decision to allow a Scott Moore try ‘unbelievable’.

The video referee’s most-outspoken critic is Phil ‘Gus’ Gould, the Channel Nine summariser in Australia, and the man who was the most successful State of Origin coach until Mal Meninga’s recent run of glory. Gould has regularly panned not just individual decisions but the entire concept both on air and in his newspaper columns. This makes a refreshing change for British fans with a keen interest in the NRL, as Sky Sports, while prepared to criticise individual errors, have always firmly endorsed video refereeing with not a single word to the contrary in 15 years, presumably because it was their idea in the first place. A debate on the pros and cons of the technology regularly takes place down under but, on TV at least, is long overdue in this country. Surely the role of a magazine show like Boots ‘N’ All is to discuss the opinions of a high-profile coach like Smith, especially when they are of such an incendiary nature.

But back to Gould. “Video refs show us time and again they just don’t know the game,” he said shortly after the Bulldogs were denied that last-minute winner against the Dragons last year. “They continually confuse themselves on issues of stripping and obstruction. They try to apply black-and-white interpretations to these actions when such adjudications require knowledge and discretion. Any player of any era would have awarded a try to the Bulldogs, who deserved to win the game. Somehow, video referee Steve Clark managed to convince himself Dragons five-eighth Jamie Soward was impeded. His clanger of a verdict absolutely destroyed a great game of football between two courageous teams. We had to go upstairs to the eye in the sky to check on a bump in running to one of the Dragons defenders 40 metres back up-field. Replay, replay, replay. Wait, wait, wait. More replays. More waiting. Crikey, if he had to look at it this many times it’s obvious it had to be a try. But no. Clark stunned everyone with a decision that destroyed the atmosphere, the mood and the game. Instead of all the post-match talk being about heroics, great players and great plays, the headlines are all about this ridiculous decision. Personally, I would like to see an end to the use of the video referee for all general-play decisions.”

Happy to go into bat for the beleaguered video ref, however, is the Wakefield coach and twice Challenge Cup winner, John Kear, who brings another argument to the table when pointing out the increased entertainment and drama which can only be a good thing for the fans. “Ultimately we have to realise that we’re there to provide entertainment for the spectators,” he said. “Us coaches can be control freaks and we think that when X happens then Y is the consequence, but it’s going to be a bit boring if that’s always the case for spectators and it’s them who pay our wages. I’m a fan of the drama of it and it’s upped the percentage of correct decisions, although there is an element of error in it. But it certainly entertains and that’s the business that we’re in.

“I don’t think it’s overused, but one change I’d make is to ensure that the last replay is in real time. Sometimes groundings can look a little bit iffy and separations might not be seen unless they’re slowed down to the Nth degree, so I’d like to see the last replay at normal speed to even that out.

“I think they’re more likely to produce correct results than the non-televised games that have in-goal judges instead, and it’s also useful for 40-20s etc. I wouldn’t be happy for them to go for forward passes, but I’m happy for them to look at obstructions etc. And I think it’s fair enough that they use it as much as they do. Obviously some referees are more competent than others and we’ve got to accept that, just as some players are better at decision making than others.”

But Kear stops short at suggesting that video referees should be used at every game, like they are in the NRL, and as the Hull KR and England coaches, Justin Morgan and Steve McNamara, have also suggested previously. “We’ve got to be realistic,” said Kear. “Times are hard aren’t they, so we’re not going to get it. I’m not going to insist that it should be at every game because Sky are our broadcast partners and they pay very well to be that. We should give them that entertainment.”

Back to the stats which lead to a multitude of questions. 143 out of 175 decisions were definitely correct, in my opinion, this season, which, on the surface, suggests that the video referee is worth every penny. But surely a very high percentage of those calls would have been made by the referee anyway, and how many times is he completely sure of the decision, but, given the pressure, wants to double check out of fear of being humiliated? And how many times does a referee not use the technology and make the wrong call – Paul Cooke’s wrongly awarded try for Wakefield against his former club Hull being an obvious example. Would a well-placed in-goal judge – scrapped due to the presence of the video ref – have spotted the stand-off’s fumble?

In soccer, there is a clamour – largely on the back of Frank Lampard’s infamously disallowed goal at the World Cup for England against Germany – for goal-line technology to be introduced; an idea that would solve those specific queries for certain. It is unlikely, however, that the round-ball game would consider having a video referee to judge possible penalties, as debates would go on forever on the terraces. Such an amendment in Rugby League – restricting its use to the definite yes-or-no calls such as foot-on-the-line decisions, rather than obstructions for example – would suit Gould, and even Smith, it appears. And, with this number of queries per game, is it really the case that every game prior to 1996, and every non-televised match since, has had a referee awarding or disallowing a try every 27 and a half minutes that he and his officials were unsure about?

With two former England coaches like Smith and Kear, both still big names in the game, holding completely opposing views, there’s obviously plenty still to be debated.

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