The last few weeks have seen a dramatic increase in eyeballs on our game, with three blockbuster series played in the Southern Hemisphere.
We’ve been able to draw a number of conclusions from those matches: the Wallabies have improved, England have declined, South Africa look reinvigorated and Ireland will be a real contender at the World Cup.
There is one more I’d like to throw in while we’re at it: the game has become ponderously slow.
I’m not talking about the rugby itself, which has been of a very high quality – skilful and fast with a great mix of attack and defence. I’m talking about the times when the ball isn’t in play, where I think the amount and nature of stoppages are seriously impacting the viewing experience.
I went to Brisbane for the first game against Ireland, and the thing that struck me was the amount of dead time during the match. A period of scintillating rugby would get the crowd on their feet, but then the play would stop and three minutes would pass – a substitution would be made, an injury stoppage would take place, or a pointless TMO intervention.
This sucked the energy from the stadium time after time. People sat back down. Conversation would strike up. Focus drifted. I had a similar experience last Saturday at a friend’s house, where we had two televisions side-by-side – one tuned to the rugby and the other to the soccer. The differences were stark.
The main culprit is the increased use of the TMO. First introduced as a way of checking on contentious try decisions, it’s now permeated almost every part of the game. On Saturday we saw Ben Skeen inject himself to comment on high tackles, lifting tackles and playing the ball on the ground, as well as a contentious try decision.
Each of these involvements takes at least five minutes. Fans at the ground have no idea what’s going on – the referee just wanders into open field, his hand on his ear, and we are all left wondering what the hell has happened. It’s cleared up minutes later when, after extensive discussion, we have a decision.
I hate it. It hasn’t helped the game at all. While we may be picking up the occasional off-the-ball incident we would have missed in the past, we’re now adding 15 minutes onto the run time of the game. We’re trying to obtain a perfection in officiating that is impossible to achieve, and killing the game in the process.
I’m starting a campaign to end TMO involvements away from try-scoring actions. It’s called ‘GET BACK IN YOUR BOX’ and it’s going to sweep the nation.
I don’t care if Jack McGrath knocked the ball out of Nick Phipps’ hands. The ref missed it, and that’s rugby. Get back in your box.
I don’t care if Kurtley Beale’s tackle slipped up around the shoulders of Garry Ringrose. The ref saw it, the touchie saw it, and we played on. Get back in your box.
I don’t care if Adam Coleman took a player out off the ball five minutes before an Israel Folau try. It didn’t impact the ensuing play, or warrant a card. Get back in your box.
We need to be comfortable with the ref missing the occasional incident at the base of the ruck, or behind the play. They can be dealt with by the judiciary, as they have been in the past.
I encourage you to stand with me and tolerate the occasional refereeing error, and eliminate the creep in the responsibilities of the TMO. Because before long we’ll be stopping play to look at every ruck, where a player tripped off his feet or came in marginally from the side.
Embrace the imperfections of our game – by trying to eliminate them we’re only making it worse.
I want a game that ebbs and flows, where momentum shifts and teams can trade haymakers without breaking for five minutes every time a tackle slips above the waist.
I want eyeballs to be stuck like glue to TV screens, not given an opportunity to flick over to the League/AFL/Soccer/Midsummer Murders because it looked like the knock-on at the ruck might have been caused by a defender’s boot.
I want crowds to get on their feet, and stay there.
I want the TMO to get back in his box. And I hope you do too.