LONDON, September 22- He is called the Television Match Official, or TMO, and he has become the villain of the Rugby World Cup.
The poor TMO is being accused of unnecessarily extending games, becoming rugby’s nanny and letting referees avoid making tough decisions.
But the team of four officials from Australia, England, New Zealand South Africa who sit in front of the bank of screens with God-like powers over a game’s destiny is here to stay — mainly because their decisions have been right.
The controversy started on the first day of the six week World Cup on Friday when England played Fiji and has grown since.
Fiji scrumhalf Nikola Matawalu took a ball from a scrum, ran 50 metres, lunged with two England tacklers desperately trying to hold him back and touched down.
South African referee Jaco Peyper gave the try but then saw images on the giant screens indicating Matawalu may have dropped the ball.
After what seemed an eternity, the TMO overturned the try. Many were dismayed even though the TMO was right.
Clive Woodward, coach of the England team that won the 2003 World Cup, said referees should not be allowed to change their decisions.
“He’s got to say ‘sorry guys, I made a mistake’. It’s a refereeing error (but) once you give it, you can’t then go back. They shouldn’t have changed it – even though the decision was right.”
The 80 minute game eventually lasted more than 100 minutes because of stoppages, mostly Peyper referring incidents to the video referee.
Following games also saw major holdups as referees repeatedly made charades-like television shapes with their hands. Jeers quickly followed.
– Game braker –
“I’m off for a half time wee,” wrote rugby journalist Paul Williams on Twitter. “But I’m going to phone the TMO first – see if he agrees.”
“This is going to be a long World Cup with this much TMO involvement,” commented former All Black Nick Evans.
World Cup coaches and players acknowledge that nearly all of the television match officials calls have been good. But not the time they take.
“In the world of rugby we want the game to keep going,” said Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.
“There’s nothing worse for players than having long, disruptive periods, they tend to slow down a bit, cool down a bit and that makes them more susceptible to soft-tissue injuries as well.”
England international Owen Farrell said the frequent interruptions could even force teams like England, who favour a fast-paced physical game, to change their tactics.
England aims to play with an intensity which will “physically and emotionally break the opposition,” said Farrell. But that is more difficult when the game keeps stopping.
Milton Haig, coach of World Cup minnows Georgia said the TMO could halt rugby’s television rating rise.
“I think you will find that it is probably going to impact on people viewing the game,” he said. “We don’t want to turn into American gridiron, that’s for sure.”
Roger Lewis, chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, said the decisions made by the TMO were ultimately “right”, but the speed was “frustrating”.
Many top coaches have refused to be drawn into the debate. New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said it was a “new toy” but that the global federation “will sort it out.”
World Rugby and the Rugby World Cup organisers have refused to discuss the controversy however.
They did issue a statement late on Monday which among other things stated that ‘just 28 per cent of all stoppage time in the opening match was due to TMO’.
A World Rugby spokesman would only say to AFP: “We are confident in our match official team and their ability to apply the TMO protocols.”
“Our objective is clear, consistent and above all, accurate decision-making and importantly the decisions were correct on Friday night.
“We did experience some small communication issues between the team and the producer, which led to delays, but ultimately the decisions were correct and we look forward to a fantastic tournament.”