Linston Manuels wasn't the only one to blame

The late lamented Steve Strydom had no doubt there was a place for it, he just didn’t know what to call it. Video ref? Telly ref? Too familiar. So it became the television match official, or the TMO.
Only those involved with the administration of the laws ever use either of those terms, of course.

But it wouldn’t matter if you called them Heffalumps, Rhinostricows or Pushmepullyous, just as long as they did their jobs correctly. Following Akona Ndungane’s try that wasn’t for the Bulls against the Hurricanes, South Africa’s public enemy number one has become the unfortunate TMO in charge at Loftus, Linston Manuels.

It’s an accident that has been waiting to happen, for while everything else that happens during the game is filtered through the eyes of the officials, the TMO’s job is to interpret television pictures. Marshall McLuhan famously said: “The medium is the message”, but, in the case of the TMO, frequently the medium is the mess.

The pictures he sees are filtered through a television van and processed by a VT (videotape) editor. In a Super 14 match, as many as six angles are instantly available, but it takes time for the director to sort the wheat from the chaff, so the first two replays given to the TMO are on a little bit of a wing and a prayer. He plays the angles that usually work first.

Frequently, the first choice is the so-called “reverse angle” obtained by one of the ground cameras. These are the chaps who can run backwards as fast as most people can run forwards. The next is often “transmission”—the pictures that went live to air—obtained normally from one of the “ball follow” cameras two storeys up on the halfway line.

While those two replays are being aired, the VT department and director are frantically scanning the other available angles to see if there is anything that gives greater clarity.

If the TMO has made his decision from one of the first two replays, this search becomes largely academic, but if not, the director’s choice from here on in becomes crucial. He is now in a position to dictate the course of events, especially since he is in direct voice contact with the TMO.

And if you think that everyone in television is neutral and only after the best for the product, then consider the number of times in both rugby and cricket when the perfect angle, the one that settles the matter once and for all, mysteriously becomes available only after the TMO has made his decision.

Which is not to say all directors are corrupt, merely that human fallibility is at work everywhere and not just in the TMO’s box. The moral of the story is simply that a referee who is 5m or 10m from the action is almost always in a better position than the TMO to judge what really happened.

At Loftus last Friday night, referee George Ayoub and the relevant touch judge both saw Ndungane fall on the ball, but neither was willing to run the risk of being wrong because they were on television. So they gave the hospital pass to Manuels, who has been removed from the game for an indeterminate amount of time by an embarrassed SA Rugby referees department, headed by Andre Watson.

Manuels decided that Ndungane had made contact with the ball below the waist. Replays proved he was wrong, but you probably would not have heard much about it had it not been for the fact that the Bulls went on to lose the match. All the talk now is of the win bonus money not earned by the boys in blue and of the likelihood that the defeat will deprive them of a home semifinal.

Such talk is patent nonsense, for we are less than halfway through the competition and the Bulls are, as ever, the architects of their own destiny. Yet they have a reason to be peeved, inasmuch as yet another official could still have corrected Manuels’ error at the moment of its inception.

For the TMO does not sit in an ivory tower in glorious isolation; he is accompanied by an assessor, a man whose main role is to judge the performance of the match referee, but who also has the power to overrule an aberrant decision by the TMO. In other words, there is a hierarchy with checks and balances in place at every Super 14 match.

So with a referee, two touch judges, a TMO and an assessor party to pictures and live events that proved conclusively the Bulls had scored, the wrong decision still came out. Which just goes to show that human error is one thing, but to really stuff things up, you need a committee.

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