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Video killed the Super League star

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George Riley George Riley | 17:03 UK time, Wednesday, 13 July 2011

I've spent the last week wondering whether we should scrap video technology all together if we are not in a position to have it at every ground.

On the face of it, that would appear a crazily counter-productive step but I left the Stoop at the weekend ranting to anyone who would listen about how unfair the arbitrary nature of the current set up is.

Harlequins had been ultimately well-beaten by the champions Wigan, who came good after half-time despite the clear fatigue of having played two games in less than 72 hours. But Quins were the better side over the first 40, had three tries chalked off and somehow contrived to be 14-6 down at the break.

Those decisions clearly triggered a massive momentum shift and I felt at the time that Rob Powell's side had been hard done to simply because the game was not on television.

Had it been, then the referee Rob Hicks would have referred all three decisions and the outcome may have been much different.

Harlequins RL's Rob Purdham

Rob Purdham was controversially denied a try during Harlequins' loss to Wigan. Picture: Getty Images

I am not for one moment suggesting the London club would have won the game. But it would have been heads up rather than tails between legs at the break. Fair play to Hicks, who is a good bloke and was happy to chat to me about the decisions in the players bar afterwards. He explained each call, and revealed that he was ready to award one of the tries but overruled on the say-so of a touch judge who claimed he’d seen a knock-on over the line from 60 yards further away.

But the arbitrary nature of having “the big games” on TV, means that the more unfashionable clubs like Harlequins are liable to be involved in more non-televised games where such debatable decisions are therefore common place. Indeed I have been to many games over the years where there have been clear errors, obvious knock-ons or offsides in the lead up to tries which have thus been awarded because of the absence of a video ref.

Sky are obliged to show each team at home twice per season. As it stands video technology is only used in games televised, which in Super League terms is generally two games per week.

So just two out of seven weekly fixtures will see (supposedly) flawless decisions, with the remaining five subject to a great deal of human error. How can that be fair?

I was so angry I rang the boss – the RFL’s Match Officials’ Director Stuart Cummings. I queried all the calls in the Quins v Wigan game and Cummings to his credit was excellent. In fact his response added further strength to my argument, as he insisted it was Wigan rather than Quins who were on the receiving end of the worst calls!

His view, having studied the replays from the available footage at the game, was that all three Quins tries were rightly disallowed, and Wigan in fact should have had two scores awarded that were not. I hadn’t even noticed those.

When pushed however on a seemingly straightforward score denied to Rob Purdham for knocking on over the line, Cummings did concede that was the most “dubious” disallowed try of the afternoon. The very fact we were having this conversation highlighted an ongoing inconsistency in a game that prides itself on innovation and trailblazing.

Before calling Cummings, I’d canvassed opinion from several current and former players.

“It’s not right. Every game should have technological assistance. But it comes down to cost,” said St Helens and England forward Jon Wilkin.

“It should be available at all games. The games are always taped and even if they can’t finance a full set of cameras, you would still see more,” said England and Leeds scrum-half Rob Burrow.

“It’s absolutely unfair and if the RFL are as innovative as we’re led to believe they should get it sponsored and that would cover the cost,” said former Great Britain, Wigan and Bradford coach Brian Noble.

“Imagine if they brought this technology into football but only used it in some games – it would cause uproar as it just is not fair,” said Harlequins full-back Luke Dorn.

To balance this, we need both to remember how much the introduction of video technology – way before most other sports – has enhanced our great game, and applaud the RFL for that. And we also need to note that ours is not the only sport to harbour such inconsistencies.

Only the show courts at Wimbledon for example can rely on Hawk-Eye to assist on line calls. Roger Federer dislikes the technology and thus is loathe to use his challenges, but that doesn’t deprive his opponent of the opportunity.

The upcoming international Test cricket series between England and India on the other hand won’t use Hawk-eye technology because the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) aren’t keen. Hardly fair on England who have become accustomed to it.

So why can’t we have some degree of video replay technology available at every Super League fixture? Would it be that expensive? We wouldn’t need to go crazy with big screens and copious camera angles at every game like Sky, just a couple of cameras, and an official watching a monitor on a gantry should do it.

Cost is cited as the main stumbling block, but how pricey would something like that be? It wouldn’t be 100% accurate but it would be an improvement on the naked eye. This has been looked into, but it is the clubs themselves rather than the RFL that are not forthcoming.

“We trialled a system two years ago at a non-televised Hull derby,” says Cummings. “We had one camera at each end, one in the middle, and referee Ashley Klein sat in a truck in the car park as video ref. It worked well but even for that basic system it was pricey.” How much?

“The package we looked at and presented to the clubs would have cost £250,000 a year. So you have to ask would we get a quarter of a million pounds worth of benefit out of it? My view is that the officials we have are good enough to say we would not get our money’s worth from video assistance.”

This package was presented to clubs at a 2009 meeting, and nothing has since happened. Indeed the only change has been a worsening of the overall financial climate, so clubs are less likely to stump up the cash for it now.

There are other issues too. Even if this was financially viable, you would need a big enough pool of quality match officials to afford one video referee per fixture. Are we adequately resourced for that at the moment?

So what is the solution? Can we realistically strive for equality across all fixtures? Does it really matter? After all, it’s the same for both sides on the day. One option would be finding a sponsor to finance it. Would it be fair to expect the RFL go back to the clubs with a better offer off the back of their record £22.8m turnover for 2010?

Or do we just accept that having technology for the “big games” is better than nothing, embrace the positive impact the introduction of technology has hitherto had on the sport and stop demanding perfection?

Rant over, on to “any other business”. Shaun Briscoe and Louis Anderson have confirmed they are leaving Hull KR and Warrington respectively. I expect Briscoe to sign for Widnes and Anderson for Catalan Dragons.

And Noble was speaking to me after another session at the gym – keeping fit for the next Super League coaching opportunity that comes up. So watch this space.


  • Comment number 1.

    Good article George and I think it highlights some of the conflicts inherent in having such technology available to us. Having so many camera angles on offer when Sky is in town should, in theory anyway, ensure fair decisions are made but of course that isn't always the case and sometimes instead of the on-field ref using their judgement it is the video ref doing so, which really is no advantage (and sometimes a disadvantage). Being able to see an error of judgement, or just an unfavourable one, is not necessarily any more comforting than suspecting one is there but being unable to prove it. Also, on a more mundane level, having video technology present can spoil the celebration of a try. I'm not sure how often the video ref was consulted in the early days but now it seems that the on-field ref refers back an awful lot, sometimes when the try is quite clearly either a try or not a try. When that happens only for a try to be confirmed, a lot of the pleasure experienced on scoring is taken away. A trivial point maybe, but another to consider nonetheless.

    I can appreciate why rugby league clubs don't want to pay money out for what is of debatable value, bearing in mind the point I made above about judgement calls. There are probably very few clubs which could afford to part with that kind of money for something that is used relatively rarely and is not exactly crucial to the success or otherwise of the team. There have been many occasions this season when I would have happily binned the video ref completely. Either way, I can't see universal video technology ever being part of rugby league because we just don't have that kind of money available within the game. But the possibility is still worth discussing of course.

  • Comment number 2.

    How would the Harlequins vs Wigan game have benefited by not having video technology in Warrington for the visit of Huddersfield? Obviously it would not, so scrapping it completely is completely illogical and would do nothing to improve anything.

    Is it any more unfair than not having the same referee at every game? Each have their own quirks and interpretations, after all.

    Comparing matches with and without technology is a pointless exercise as the two points on offer do not depend on anything happening elsewhere.

    In a game with a video referee someone tried will be given that otherwise would not have been, and some will be disallowed that would have otherwise been given. So long as the referee is fair to both teams the net effect is the same. And egregiously bad decisions can just as easily be made regardless of the presence of technology as we saw with the Blanch try last weekend.

    And if you think there are complaints now about decisions at non-televised games, wait until the high definition replays, close-ups, and freeze frames highlight every bad decision made by a referee who has once glance at a pile of bodies several yards away go uncorrected.

    Of course every video technology at every game would be the ideal. But I would very surprised if, as Brian Noble suggests, anyone was wiling to spend a quarter of a million pounds sponsoring a technology that will only be used for non-televised games and so only exposed to the fans in the stadiums.

    But until someone is willing to spend the £1,800 per match it would cost (based on those numbers from Cummings) I see no basis on which anyone can show that results or positions on the table are unfairly affected by only using the technology at televised games. Or that the quality of the games or the refereeing would be improved by abandoning it completely.

  • Comment number 3.

    The referee is only human so any help he can get has to be welcomed. I have to say that American Football has to be the most 'policed' sport I have ever seen and I think we could learn a thing or two from how they do things across the pond. And they could learn how to play league from us :)

  • Comment number 4.

    I do think the RFL should be implementing video ref at all Super League games for consistency across all matches.

    RL has always been a sport that embraces cutting edge technology (unlike some others...), and the cost does not seem exorbitant if the figuresstated are correct.

  • Comment number 5.

    The RFL should not have to fund cameras at every game.

    Instead, follow the NRL where every game is televised by either CH9 or Foxtel, then the broadcaster picks up the cost.

    I'm sure SKY or another smaller broadcaster would be interested in covering every game in the round...

  • Comment number 6.

    Isn't every game filmed anyway? So what's the problem with using the video ref even if the fans can't see it on the big screen. I do agree that it should be all or none though. Fairness should be seen to be done.

  • Comment number 7.

    Interesting debate George however, not taking into account the cost of technology, where would we get the actual video refs from? There would need to be a pool of Video refs, are they full time or part time, how do we monitor performance, after all they are still human and one persons "benefit of the doubt" differs from another, you only need to watch sky to see Eddie, Stevo, Phil Clarke, Brian Carney, Brian Noble all come up with differing views as to whether a try should be given!
    Whether using the video ref or not, some decisions will be questionable (as a supporter all the ones that go against your team).

  • Comment number 8.

    If the technology is to be used it should be there for all games and not for a selection arbitrarily chosen by a sponsor. The RL has just posted a profit for the 9th consecutive year so perhaps they should fund it? There are two in-goal officials at each non-televised game, if they are good enough for that role then they should be good enough to be a video ref, after all that's why they are there.

  • Comment number 9.

    Great debate George. I have to say from the common view of the terraces the video refereeing has been positive for our game, when available that is.
    Many of our Super League teams are pushing their own internet TV so infrastructures are in place. Why not encourage this further and utilise a central pool of video referees (2 should suffice on a match day). The cameras could be set under fixed guidelines.
    Could even take the benefit further and use these remote referees to conduct “On Reports”, and have delayed sending offs. This could be a huge benefit for any club wronged by foul play. Many believe the “On Report” system unfair because only opponents of the next fixtures gain an advantage of a side weakened by ill discipline.
    If the cost are considered too high next best thing lets have some decent touch judges, but I suppose that’s another debate.

  • Comment number 10.

    How can a referee be overruled by a touch judge? Especially one who is 60 yards away?

  • Comment number 11.

    How can a referee be overruled by a touch judge? Especially one who is 60 yards away? That's a weak excuse from the ref imo.

    Personally, I like the video ref initiative - I think it's one of the great ideas of our game. But I would like to see it at all SL matches, and at all later stage Challenge Cup games too. The idea of getting a sponsor on board to finance this, is a good one.

  • Comment number 12.

    The RFL need to think hard about this and come up with a way to offset the cost. They should have traded some of the revenue from Sky to put in Video technology at every ground. This would be cheaper than the RFL buying and maintaning themselves, as Sky should provide at cost. Sky would then not have to transport a screen around and equipment associated with the screen and not all the cameras. It would also enhance Sky's coverage for Boots'n'All the tries, the video coverage looks like it is a bit amateur.

  • Comment number 13.

    I'd have thought you could improve the abilities of the touch judges for a lot less than £250K pa. I think the refs are pretty good at what they do, but some of the touchies' decisions can appear to be rubbish from the stands. Video refs are a good thing - they take a lot of pressure off the ref. I'd hate to lose them from the televised games.

  • Comment number 14.

    Maybe some minimum level of camera coverage should be defined, for the purposes of TMO video arbitrage, and video replays restricted to those cameras. It is surely distressing and inappropriate that television viewers might have a better view of an incident than the TMO - and misleading, since the referee is the sole judge of fact...

    Interestingly, if the broadcasters could be trusted, this would make "live" games more attractive on television, because the 'recorded' games would be restricted to the "official" camera views, while live games could show LIVE anything the tv channel chose... but in replay or recorded, only the 'offical' 'minimium' TMO requirements. I really think that it is not helpful to have TV coverage that goes beyond the TMO supervision; I think it undermines the authority of referees if pictures are shown after the event that contradict the referee's decisions on matters of fact.


  • Comment number 15.

    Good article. Every SL game should have a video ref...should be working towards this.....oh and we should have two ref's......

  • Comment number 16.

    Good article but I must add a few comments - Mr Cummings states that we have sufficient officials at the games and I agree - one referee, two touch judges and 2 in goal judges - why is it then that the touch judges appear scared to raise their flags. I sit in the stands and in every game, and I mean every game, there are forward passes and opposition defences not retreating 10 yards and the touch judges do nothing. It's usually the booing of the crowd that finally gets through to the referee to do something. I take friends to games who can't understand how a sport can be so accurate with video technology, yet so poor with human decision making - come on flag wavers - get involved.

  • Comment number 17.

    Blimey - I didn't even know that not all games have vid refs - not that I'm a RL fan but you naturally assume that all games do. I know all cricket matches don't have all the technology but it's on an agreed basis.

  • Comment number 18.

    When I saw the Crusaders at Catalan last month I noticed that the game was being televised by a French TV station and had a video ref. I was told that they cover all their home games. I believe that having video reffing for all their home games gives Catalan an advantage, if one team has it then surely we all should

  • Comment number 19.

    AT LAST!!!
    I've said this from Day one.
    I can understand the financial problems associated with doing it, but surely, the RFL can negotiate alongside Sky & get the kit for a lot less than they are claiming?
    It does smack of the RFL wanting to keep as much money in the bank as possible rather than see the sport rightly lauded for leading the way in the technology stakes.

  • Comment number 20.

    dont start this football ideology argument here, do you want to send RL back to the darkages with football? It's no more different to having hawkeye only on certain matches in big tennis tournaments. Even in some national ranking tournaments players call their own line calls. A nonsense argument to remove it from RL just because you cant have it at all games

  • Comment number 21.

    VR at non Sky games was trialed at the Hull KR/Hull game in 2009 but it was estimated it would cost £50,000/game, economic suicide for the game in the current economic crisis.

  • Comment number 22.

    I agree with George - this needs to be looked at. It has to be all Super League games or none. So if Sky want to have it for the matches they televise live, they should make it available at every game - after all they show the highlights of every game on Boots 'n' All. But what also needs to happen is a review of the extent to which video technology should be used for certain decisions - e.g. why not for forward passess? why the use of slow-mo to determine downward pressure? etc.

  • Comment number 23.

    Dont they have video ref at all catalan home matches even though they dont televise on sky ???

  • Comment number 24.

    Well highlighted George.....what a shambles, I thought this was a 'professional' game. It's certainly played for high stakes.

    Can't understand how you were able to discuss the video of the 'quins/Wigan game with Cummings if video technology "wasn't available" ?

    Perhaps a standardised approach of a camera behind each goalmouth and one on a rostrum in the stand at halfway to watch for onside/offside at kicks ?

    Won't be perfect, but will be affordable and consistent.

  • Comment number 25.

    even with the video ref why are so many tries awarded when the ball is not grounded.players dive over the try line with the ball in the crook of the arm and the ball does not touch the ground.this happened twice on saturdays telivised game.
    has the ball got to be grounded or have the rules been changed.
    [it is the same in rugby union as well]


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