England v Fiji reflections – is rugby entertainment any more?

The opening game of the 2015 Rugby World Cup has been and gone – what did you think? If the mood in front of our TV screen and across Twitter is an indicator your overriding emotion would have been one of frustration.

Frustration that we have to sit through another 6 weeks of ITV’s coverage; an Inverdale, Woodward and Dallaglio triumvirate  is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Frustration that neither Fiji nor England played to their potential. The overriding frustration though is around the constant referral to the TMO and the referees decision making.

Peyper and the TMO

Jaco Peyper is one of the best referees in the world but it wasn’t a great day at the office for him. There were a host of decisions and non-decisions that were made or not made that left viewers baffled and frankly bored.

Rugby at the top level needs to become faster and more aerobic if we are ever going to prevent the game becoming a litany of huge guys repeatedly smashing in to each other. Grunt dominates guile.

Repeated TMO referrals upsets the rhythm of the game and bores spectators. If us supporters want to see lots of repeats of the same thing on a continuous loop we can watch Friends on Comedy Central.

The England – Fiji game had a number of incidents that we could talk through and criticise the officials’ consistency and decision making:

  • Why didn’t the officials look at the first England try which was scored through a fairly obvious illegal rolling maul
  • Why didn’t Peyper initially refer the Matawalu try given he then gave it and subsequently disallowed it?
  • Who controls the TV screens in the stadium given it was a repeat showing of Matawalu’s disallowed try that caused Peyper to then refer it?
  • How many times does a TMO need to see an incident before making a decision?
  • Why was Nadolo’s try referred to the TMO?
  • Wood was guilty of grabbing a player by the neck – isn’t this a yellow under the new guidance?
  • Did the fairly innocuous leg lift on May really need to go the TMO?
  • Fiji’s second row went off his feet and planted his shoulder in the face of Robshaw but far less dangerous tackles than that were awarded a yellow card in recent Pro12 games

Analysing each of these incidents though is missing the big picture and not really getting to the bottom of the problem.

What sort of game do we want rugby to be?

The fundamental issue is do we want a game where officials don’t make any errors but the game is punctuated by prolonged TMO referrals or a game where officials make some mistakes but we have a faster, more fluid sport?

Over the last 10 years we have been moving towards the former and we all have ourselves to blame. By ‘all’ I mean supporters, players, coaches, officials and World Rugby because it has been a collective pressure that has taken us to where we are now, with repeated TMO referrals for minor offences and referees unwilling to make decisions.

This is not a criticism of referees because they are stuck in the middle between supporters and players/coaches who don’t want their team to lose to an incorrect decision and World Rugby who are assessing referees to make sure they conform to their wishes. The outcome is referees have huge pressure on them to not make mistakes.

Football has got it right

It pains us to say it but we can learn from football. They realise that football is entertainment and when people are entertained they tend to watch the sport, talk about the sport and the sport grows. The fact that technology has only been brought in to confirm if the ball has crossed the line speaks volumes for their approach to officiating accuracy.

Most controversy in football comes from penalty decisions, off sides and acts of foul play. In most cases a referral to a TMO could give the ‘correct’ result within a minute which would make the game better? Well, no. FIFA recognises that an accurate officiating game isn’t necessarily a game that drives discussion and controversy.

This is where we in rugby have got it wrong – we have gone down the road of believing a game without officials making errors is the sort of game we all want to watch. It isn’t.


During the England Fiji game we asked what sort of game we want to watch and got a few excellent responses that sums up the challenges of moving back away from technology.

This tweet from Miles@allblackshark sums up the dilemma:

all black shark

If we genuinely want to roll back the powers of the TMO and empower officials to make decisions we need to accept that errors will be made (just like players make mistakes) and that this is part of the attraction of the game.

This will mean supporters, players and coaches need to recognise that decisions are going to go against their team sometimes. These changes aren’t absolving officials of scrutiny and accountability but it is setting the benchmark of decision making “accuracy” lower that in would be with TMO support.

This is a discussion we need to have in the game at all levels and with agreement from all stakeholders. The influx of money in rugby has changed the game and the scrutiny it receives but we need to remember that firstly rugby should be about entertainment. That has to be overriding principle that governs all our decision making.

A lasting legacy of the RWC?

We will finish with a great tweet from EdThompson@edthompsn that summed up the TMO debacle:


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