By Ben Lovell-Smith
This Premier League season the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was introduced for the first time to Britain’s top league. It has caused mass debate, with calls for it to be scrapped already.
Fuel was added to the fire this weekend, as David McGoldrick’s goal was ruled out as John Lundstram’s big toe was offside in the build up. Factually speaking, the decision was correct, but it took four minutes to come to this decision, significantly disrupting the flow of the game and leaving fans frustrated as they waited. Mick McCarthy has since called for VAR to be scrapped, claiming that it is ruining football and Sky Sports pundits have questioned whether the technology is even being applied properly.
Introduced in 2000, rugby’s Television Match Official (TMO) has historically caused similar frustration. Many England fans still dream about Mark Cueto’s disallowed try in the 2007 Rugby World Cup Final, Wales fans remain bitter about Sam Warburton’s red card in 2011, Scotland fell victim to a TMO scandal in 2015 and even this year’s tournament produced numerous incidents which questioned the efficiency of the TMO. On the whole, however, it is accepted that the TMO is beneficial for rugby, what can VAR learn from this?
Rugby’s use of the TMO today is very sophisticated, but that has only been made possible by gradual introduction and through trial and error. When first introduced, the referee decided when to use the TMO, meaning that generally it would only be used to determine whether a try had been scored.
This changed in 2012, when the TMO was first authorised to interject with play, subsequently increasing the in-game reviews of foul play, forward passes and other intricacies that the referee may struggle to cover. At the highest level, the officials rarely miss a key incident, which has only been made possible by gentle introduction.
Football has not adapted adequately to the technology. The rules are unsuited and there is no clear protocol for referees to follow. There is disagreement over the definition of important rules such as offside and handball and VAR’s decisions reflect that uncertainty. In rugby there is clear protocol for awarding tries, yellow and red cards and other foul play. For instance a high tackle is anything above the nipple line, or a referee will ask the TMO ‘try or no try?’ or ‘try yes or no?’, dependent on what he has seen. The referee has the final say on all decisions, retaining his/her liberty to interpret the laws and will regularly overrule the TMO.
In this way, rugby is able to remain subjective, and decisions are made with the flow of the game. VAR is trying to make football objective, and failing miserably. It should not be scrapped, but a major rethink is needed.