Picture credit: Paul Harding/Getty Images

Sport’s spoilsports

Sport should keep video officiating to a minimum

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It was the 53rd minute of the rugby World Cup final. New Zealand, trailing 12-6 in a dour defensive match, had an attacking lineout. After Brodie Retallick took the catch it seemed clear to television viewers that Ardie Savea fumbled the ball — “He just dropped that,” the commentator said — but unsighted the referee waved play on. “No knock-on,” Wayne Barnes said. Three times.

Not long ago that would have been the end of it. Referees miss things and it was a pretty small infringement. It had no bearing on the try that New Zealand scored five phases of play and 50 seconds later on the opposite side of the field. South Africa hadn’t stopped: they played the whistle, as you should. Game on. But no. Tom Foley, the television match official, wanted a word.

“Can I just show you something?” is killing rugby as tmos go beyond helping the referee to decide if a try has been scored and become all-seeing eyes. Or not-quite-all-seeing here. Yes, Foley had spotted Savea’s knock-on but, as Barnes then noticed on reviewing the replay, he had missed a South African foul on Retallick, a greater offence. The try was still not allowed.

Blame Tony Verna. He was the television director who 60 years ago introduced the instant replay. In the fourth quarter of an American football inter-services college match, the Army quarterback Carl Stichweh faked a play and ran into the end zone to score. Then he did it again. “This is not live,” CBS’s announcer warned. “Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again.”

Before that game on 7 December, 1963, (moved back a fortnight because of President Kennedy’s assassination), networks had needed 15 minutes to rewind the tape and show what happened. Thanks to Verna, it could be done in 15 seconds — though his first attempt went wrong because they had taped over I Love Lucy and Lucille Ball’s face was suddenly superimposed on the football field.

Instant replay meant instant moaning

Instant replay meant instant moaning. For 60 years, those in sight of a screen have been able to watch the playback and grumble that something was missed. It never really mattered: the referee’s opinion stood and the replay just provided a discussion. Not now. Top-level rugby, like cricket with its third umpire and football with the video assistant referee, is subject to interminable delays, rewinds and scrutiny by camera in an attempt to ensure officiating perfection.

Some golden moments would have turned out differently with a video official. That Gareth Edwards try for the Barbarians against New Zealand in 1973 would have been called back for a blatant forward pass by Derek Quinnell (arguably Tom David’s to Quinnell went forwards too), though the BaaBaas would have then got a penalty for a high tackle on J.P.R. Williams at the start of the move.

Scotland might not have won the 1990 Five Nations if there had been a tmo. Jim Telfer, their coach, has long admitted that Tony Stanger’s try against England wasn’t touched down. And that memorable moment with Nelson Mandela in the 1995 World Cup final would not have happened if Derek Bevan, the referee in the semi-final between South Africa and France, had given Abdel Benazzi a try in the last minute. Bevan instantly said the France No 8 was stopped short; the replay 28 years later still looks like he crossed the line. South Africa won 19-15.

In cricket, England’s comeback in the 2005 Ashes hinged on the crooked finger of Billy Bowden at Edgbaston as the umpire dismissed Australia’s No 11 for a catch behind. “Jones! Bowden! Kasprowicz the man to go!” said Richie Benaud, but, wait, is that Kasprowicz’s hand coming off the bat handle before the ball brushed his glove? He could have been reprieved, though replays also showed the Aussie should have been given out leg before wicket ten overs earlier.

Golf is often blighted by snitches watching at home who spot every tiny infringement. Dustin Johnson got a two-stroke penalty that cost him the 2010 us pga Championship when viewers phoned in to say he had grounded his club in what he thought was a trampled piece of dirt and turned out to be a shallow bunker. The rules official walking with him hadn’t noticed.

Umpteen football matches could have gone the other way with var. Did Geoff Hurst’s shot really cross the line in the 1966 World Cup final? What about Maradona’s “hand of God”? Ireland were denied a place at the 2010 World Cup when the referee missed Thierry Henry’s handball in the build-up to France’s winner in extra time. Henry also scored a penalty for Arsenal in a draw against Portsmouth in 2003 that var might have cancelled for a dive by Robert Pires, thus ending the Invincibles’ 49-match unbeaten streak after only four matches.

These remain hypotheticals, of course, but isn’t sport about the what-ifs and the but-fors, the we-wuz-robbeds? Sport accepts luck from the pitch or conditions — the wicket taken by a ball that keeps low, the gust of wind that pushes a conversion wide, the keeper with sun in his eyes — why not accept that bad decisions, if honestly made and consistent, are part of the game?

Sportsmen make plenty of errors. One-eyed fans can still miss things. Even journalists suffer the odd lapse. Why must referees alone be perfect? As Ange Postecoglou, the Tottenham Hotspur manager, recently said after a var debacle: “At some point we have to accept the referee’s decision.” Let’s keep video officiating to a minimum. An end to trial by television.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover