Italy hosting Ireland in a 6 Nations tournament rugby match in Rome on March 16 2013 (Simon Roughneen)

Italy hosting Ireland in a 6 Nations tournament rugby match in Rome on March 16 2013 (Simon Roughneen)

Over-reliance on video systems could undermine refs’ authority and slow down games

JAKARTA — In the 34th minute of the July 15 France vs. Croatia soccer World Cup final, with the game finely balanced at 1-1, referee Nestor Pitana jogged to the touchline in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.

With the roar of nearly 80,000 spectators ringing in his ears, the Argentine was en route to becoming the first official to use soccer’s new Video Assistant Referee system in the culminating match of the world’s biggest sporting event.

Pitana spent almost a full minute — including turning back to the VAR monitor for second look — reviewing the incident, an alleged Croatian handball, before awarding France a penalty kick.

The penalty was scored, amid the jeers of tens of thousands of furious Croatians reverberating around the stadium. The technology-assisted decision proved pivotal as the French went on to beat first-time finalists Croatia 4-2 to win soccer’s world championship for the second time.

The contentious decision — awarding a penalty despite the VAR review offering no definitive proof whether an offense had occurred — was a reminder that a referee’s discretion or subjective opinion is often the deciding factor in high-profile team sport events, regardless of incontrovertible rules or infallible technology.

Similarly debatable video-assisted outcomes are likely to play out in Japan during next year’s Rugby World Cup, a smaller tournament featuring 20 countries, compared with the 32 qualifiers that contest the soccer championship.

Rugby, though nowhere near as widely played geographically as soccer, is a more physical, attritional and faster-paced sport.

Partly because of those attributes, as well as the arguably wider scope for referees to subjectively interpret the rules, the sport has deployed television or video technology to assist referees for a lot longer than soccer has, with the Television Match Official system in use since 2001.

The TMO system differs slightly from its soccer VAR counterpart in that the on-field referee does not personally check a video replay of any contentious incident, but asks the TV official to help adjudicate if he or she cannot decide single-handedly.

“The referee has a thankless task,” said Tony Ward, a former European rugby player of the year and now a rugby commentator. “He is on the field, he has to watch the ball; it is very difficult for him to watch what is going on off the ball.”

However, the TMO system has drawn criticism for allowing referees to shirk responsibility for taking controversial or difficult decisions. The system enables the referee to pass responsibility to a TMO sitting in a room in the stands in front of an array of television screens, rather than on the pitch surrounded by adrenaline-fueled players and tens of thousands of roaring, on-edge spectators.

Sanzaar, a regional governing body for southern hemisphere rugby, covering powerhouse countries such as Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, stated on July 17 that it “believes the appointed referee needs to remain the key decision maker on the field and that TMO interventions only provide context to the match officials’ decision-making.”

A perceived over-reliance on the TMO system has seen games interrupted for minutes at a time as on-field incidents are reviewed, in turn undermining the attractiveness of the spectacle for those in the stands or watching at home on TV.

“Consistency and speed (with correct decisions) from officials is what fans want,” said Australia’s Tim Horan, a two-time Rugby World Cup winner and now a commentator on Australian television, in a Twitter post. “TMOs and referees need to understand that fans want the game to flow.”

The use of technology failed to prevent what appeared to be contradictory or confusing decisions by referees during June internationals featuring world champions New Zealand and France as well as Australia and Ireland.

“There was probably more intrusion than ever from the TMOs,” said Tony Ward, discussing the international matches played in June. “There is a balance to be struck” between on-field refereeing and TMOs, added Ward, a former Irish Rugby international.

For example, Australian referee Angus Gardner sent off France’s Benjamin Fall during his country’s second match in New Zealand in June, a decision that was reversed a few days later by World Rugby, the sport’s governing body — confirming that Gardner had visibly erred during the match.

A week later Irish referee John Lacey clumsily stood in the way of a French player attempting to tackle a New Zealand opponent, enabling the New Zealanders score a try and go on to win the match comfortably. The Australia v Ireland series of matches were blighted by a series of confusing calls by referees, such as such as penalizing players for offenses that later were not sanctioned when replicated by other players.

Various rugby pundits speculated that the recent spate of substandard officiating was attributable to deploying relatively inexperienced referees in those June matches. With only a handful of high-level referees to choose from, World Rugby wants to season and widen the referee roster, giving younger officials exposure to decision-making during high pressure internationals, or test matches, ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

“It is our goal to arrive at every Rugby World Cup with a strong pool of top-class match officials to select from and that means ensuring that the very best up-and-coming international match officials gain exposure to top test matches as soon as we believe that they are capable,” said a World Rugby spokesperson.

When referee decisions go awry, it can tip the balance in finely poised contests, as seen in the soccer World Cup. While the consensus remains that France was a deserving overall winner and that generally the VAR system worked well, Croatia was arguably the better team during the final — at least until the VAR penalty ruling.

Ensuring that Rugby World Cup matches are fairly and effectively refereed should boost the already-growing appeal of rugby in Japan and contribute to a more exciting world cup next year for the 400,000 visitors expected to travel to Japan for the tournament.

“The [rugby] world cup presents an opportunity to showcase the game,” said Bernard Jackman, coach of the Dragons, a prominent club team in Wales, where rugby is the national sport.

Jackman said that reducing the time spent on reviewing TMO decisions would speed up the sport and possibly add to its appeal in Japan and Asia.

“People looking at the game for the first time or newcomers to the game, I think will want to see action,” he said. “The challenge is to cut to down the time the ball is out of play.”

Local enthusiasm could also turn on how well host team Japan plays. Japan has qualified for the knockout stages of the soccer World Cup three times — in 2002, 2010 and 2018. In 1966, North Korea reached the soccer quarterfinals, an achievement bettered in 2002 by South Korea, which reached the semifinals of a World Cup it co-hosted with Japan.

Despite a landmark win over two-time rugby world champions South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England, the Brave Blossoms, the nickname for Japan’s national rugby team, face a tough challenge on home soil next year if they are to match Asia’s highest achievers.

Listed 11th in the latest official world rugby rankings, Japan will face Ireland, the world’s No. 2 ranked side and current Six Nations or European champions, and Scotland, currently ranked seventh, as well as Samoa (16th) and Russia (19th). Only two of the five will advance to the knockout stages.

But buoyed by home-turf advantage and fervent support, Russia — the lowest-ranked team going into the soccer World Cup — made an unexpected run to the quarterfinals, which helped sustain that country’s interest in the tournament.

A similar showing by Japan’s rugby team next year should see heightened local enthusiasm for the competition, regardless of frustrations caused by any inconsistent refereeing.

“We are anticipating a very special, once-in-a-lifetime experience that will provide a boost for Japanese and global rugby, but also the Japanese economy, with significant impact through the hosting of a truly nationwide tournament,” said a World Rugby spokesperson.

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