Video saves the rugby stars
A quick rugby quiz question for you - which man had a decisive say in the result of the last World Cup final, the Lions v South Africa series in 2009 and the Heineken Cup final of 2004?
If you said the video ref, or television match official, give yourself an extra biscuit to go with your mid-morning cuppa.
It might sound a little disingenuous, but cast your mind back - Mark Cueto's 'try' in the corner, ruled out by Stuart Dickinson after almost three minutes of sifting through replays; Jaque Fourie's late try for the Springboks in the key second Test, awarded by Dickinson after ruling that Mike Phillips' tackle had not taken the centre into touch; Rob Howley's larceny on the dawdling Clement Poitrenaud, only awarded by Alain Rolland after recourse to Alan Lewis and his monitor upstairs.
All of which explains why I decided to watch this weekend's Wasps v Leicester clash from the dark confines of Sky TV's broadcast truck in the Adams Park concourse, rather than the usual spot in the main stand.
Seated at the back is 59-year-old Geoff Warren, one of the most experienced TMOs on the planet. "My usual heart-rate is between 45-50 bpm, but when a big decision comes in, you watch - it'll leap to 120," he grins.
At his disposal, several vital tools: a large TV monitor, controlled by Sky's broadcast director; a pair of headphones with mic attached, connecting him to on-pitch referee Wayne Barnes; a stopwatch, to provide back-up to the clock in the stadium; a copy of the laws of rugby ("Just in case..."), a bottle of water, and a large pack of Werther's Original, the latter presumably in case any of his decisions leave a bad taste in the mouth.
Matches can of course pass by without any recourse to the TMO. Not this one. With just 10 minutes gone, Leicester's Thomas Waldrom crashes towards the line, reaches out a chunky arm as the Wasps' defence envelops him and jams the ball down somewhere very close to try-line and post.
Warren is already leaning so close to the screen that his nose is almost touching. Has Waldrom scored, or has he been held up short? Referee Barnes, unsighted and unsure, makes a 'T' shape with his hands, and the question comes through.
One replay, from behind the player, crosses the screen. "Geoff!" yells the director. "Are you happy with that, or do you want another angle?"
"Another angle please," shouts Geoff, eyes never leaving the screen. Up pops a view of the incident from the dead-ball line. You can clearly see that Waldrom has grounded the ball short of the line, but against the post. Is that a try, you think desperately - how high on the post was the ball...
"Yup!" shouts Geoff. "No try!" He flicks a switch to open up his mic. "Wayne? It's no try."
On another screen, showing the main TV feed, you can see Barnes nod, blow his whistle and get the game back under way. The whole process has taken less than 30 seconds.
"I could see straight away that it wasn't a try," Geoff whispers to me in his West Country burr. "But with one of those technical ones, you always want to double-check."
For those unfamiliar with the finer points of rugby law, the try was turned down because the ball hit the posts a good foot up. For the try to be awarded - the posts count as part of the line - the ball would have to have touched their base.
Geoff, veteran of almost 300 top-flight games as a referee before he became a TMO, is delighted. "That's why I'm a fan of the system - it means we can get 99.9% of decisions correct. That's what everyone wants. And there's a lot of money riding on rugby now."
Money, national pride and history. In the 10 years since the TMO made his global bow, after being trialled in the Super 12 (note for future quiz reference: the first international TMO decision was by controversial Kiwi Steve Walsh, awarding a try to All Blacks skipper Todd Blackadder) it has proved pivotal time and time again.
Warren's own biggest call came in the last minute of extra time in the Gloucester v Bath Powergen Cup semi-final of 2005, confirming Andy Williams had touched down a kick-and-chase to send Bath to Twickenham.
There have been bigger. Of the examples above, the Howley one was relatively straightforward; a single replay from behind the try-line was enough to see that the scrum-half had grounded the ball. The Fourie one was much tougher, with both French referee Christophe Berdos and his touch-judge completely unsure until Dickinson's (almost certainly correct) intervention.
And Cueto's non-try, which would have made it 8-9 just into the second half with a Jonny Wilkinson conversion to follow? At the time, watching from the stands in the Stade de France, I was convinced Danie Rossouw had failed to put the winger into touch. Then again, I had Ben Dirs jumping all over me.
The less-biased referee Rolland asked Dickinson a very slight variation on one of the set questions TMOs are allowed. "Can you just confirm if there is any reason why I cannot give a try please?"
It was something of a hospital pass. It took until the fifth replay, almost three minutes in, for Dickinson to come up with a verdict.
England's Mark Cueto dives over for the disallowed try in the 2007 World Cup final. Pic: Getty
Watching it again this weekend, I'm still half-convinced Cueto scored. Are there times when a TMO just can't see enough?
"The director will give you the best angle he's got, but you can ask for one in particular," explains Warren.
"Some of the decisions can be very difficult. Sometimes you can't see clearly, so then it depends on the question you're asked by the ref.
"If he says, 'Is it a try - yes or no?' that gives me the option to look at anything. If he says, 'Is there any reason why I can't award a try?' I have to be able to see that reason. If all the replays are inconclusive, I will say to him, 'I can't see any reason not to award it.'"
What if the video replay fails, and he's left with a blank screen? "In the eight years and
200 games I've been doing it, it's never happened." And if the radio link with the referee on the pitch goes kaput? "I'm given a mobile phone for the match. I use that to call the fourth official pitch-side. I tell him my decision, and he runs onto the pitch to pass it on to the ref."
While Wasps and Leicester produce one of the games of the season so far, Warren's afternoon is a busy one. Just before half-time, Martin Castrogiovanni rumbles through the hosts' defence and feeds Tom Croft, who stretches out to slam the ball down over the try-line at pace.
Did he touch it down cleanly, or was there a bounce there? Geoff is waiting, eyes wide, poised - but Barnes goes straight for his whistle to award the try.
"Geoff! Was it a try?" yells the Sky director.
"Did it bounce?"
"Nope. Definitely a try."
Replays confirm the verdict of Barnes and Warren. Had the man in the middle got that wrong, Warren would have been powerless. "I can only intervene if he asks me a question. Otherwise I have to stay silent."
Midway through the second half, Tom Rees barrels towards the line and is hit with a monstrous tackle that appears to dislodge the ball before he can ground it. Warren is ready as Barnes's voice comes through his headphones.
"Geoff. Wayne here. Did he ground the ball. Secondly, in the act of scoring was there foul play that could have stopped the try?"
Warren needs just one replay, "Wayne. Geoff. I'm not going to award the try. No score."
The TV director wants to be certain. "Geoff! Was the tackler high by Blue (Croft)?"
"No. No no. Wayne, in answer to the second question, I don't believe there was any foul play. Knock on, scrum five defending team."
Barnes nods. "So I'm going to go back to the original decision." "Yes."
A moment later, the game under way again, Sky's expert summariser Stuart Barnes comes over the TV commentary. "I think Wayne Barnes is the best referee on the planet."
Geoff leans back, pops a Werther's Original in his mouth and allows himself a little smile.