Credit: Hanson Lu via Unsplash

The try that never was

By Hannah Michie

What happened in the final minutes of Scotland vs. France – and what does it mean for the future of World Rugby?

The clock turns red at Murrayfield. A whistle, and the TMO gesture given by the referee.
67,000 fans, with breath baited; heads turned to the screens at either end of the pitch.
The score stands at 20-16 to France. Sam Skinner’s try could mean a chance at a
Scottish Grand Slam – we could but hope.

The play is shown once from the TMO’s footage. Murrayfield erupts. I, for one, let
out a squeal. Is it down? It has to be down. Here ensued the strangest three minutes I
have ever experienced at a rugby match. The subsequent confusion and frustration boil down to one fateful, crucial element: upon signalling for TMO support in determining the grounding of Skinner’s try, Australian-born referee Nic Berry expressed his opinion that the ball had been held up. In doing so, he triggered the discourse of incontestability when it comes to referees in sport, and especially in rugby.

Since its introduction in 2001, rugby’s Television Match Official (TMO) system has evolved tenfold – now standing as one of the sport’s most valued referee-assisting technologies. It comprises dozens of constantly-analysed, live-stream angles of every play and player on a pitch, allowing for a comprehensive and objective verification of all potential tries and elements of foul-play.

Now, in rugby, the referee is the be-all and end-all in almost every sense – their decisions are upheld, their presence is respected, and their word is final. This is highlighted throughout World Rugby’s Law publications, that a referee is the “sole judge of fact and of law during a match.” (Law 6) and it creates a precedent of hierarchy, wherein TMO operatives are less authoritative than referees despite often having better – and more – angles through which to view the play.

During those precious moments at Murrayfield Stadium on the 10 February, this meant that despite the initial opinion of TMO Brian MacNeice that Scotland’s try was legitimate based on the vantages he had of the play and the on-field-off-field deliberation (the replay of which was something of a torturously hopeful back-and-forth for Scottish and French fans alike), Berry’s word had to prevail.

Since the match, equally debated on social media, amongst fans, professionals and journalists has been not only the validity of Scotland’s would-be try but what this situation could mean for the future role of TMO in World Rugby.

There are a few rational suggestions; The first is to remove TMO involvement completely. This would elevate the referee to an almost god-like standing on the field, with no potential for contesting their decisions. It could also be more dangerous, with TMO presence mitigating deliberate foul play and accountability for on-field incidents. Infamous former World Rugby referee Nigel Owens has been particularly vocal about this type of development in the sport, given what he feels is impacting the referee’s right to on-field decision-making. In various interviews, Owens notes that increasingly in recent tournaments, TMO has been the ones to referee play, not the referees themselves – claiming that increased TMO officiation and the attention that this takes away from live play, stoppages, line-outs and scrums is “… not a road that rugby should be going down.” At the very least, he says, this use of TMO requires revision.

Second, the inverse. To remove the authority of an on-field referee and leave all decision-making to remote TMOs. I can’t see much wrong with this. It could eliminate a degree of human error, provide transparent analysis of legal and illegal plays, and remove the sometimes toxic backlash that many referees face off the back of controversial decisions (World Rugby’s documentary Whistleblowers details the realities of this). But, is it too radical? Does it remove the gritty, inevitably human element that makes rugby so exciting and arresting to watch? Finally, and probably most likely, is that after all this deliberation – much like the outcome of the try that never was – the referee’s word will carry. Because for every Scottish fan demanding change to the system, there is a French fan praising it for its
decisiveness and such is the nature of the game.


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