Too close to NFL or positive for fan engagement? Rugby fans inside stadiums hear referee's decisions

All supporters attending rugby matches in England will be able to hear explanations from the referee for the first time in a move to help fans understand the process behind key officiating decisions, following the launch of an NFL-style talkback trial system in the Premiership Rugby Cup this weekend in Gloucester’s match against Bath where supporters heard the referee over the ground’s PA system.

While referees can be heard on television and using fan radio devices, for the first time the whole stadium will be able to hear the referee’s thoughts and explanations during reviewed incidents involving the Television Match Official, with referees using a separate microphone which will be turned on for each incident to directly relay their thoughts to the crowd.

The system will not directly mimic the NFL, where all decisions are relayed by the head referee to the crowd, but the addition of TMO decisions being explained is a positive move for fan engagement. Assistant referees and the TMO will not be mic’d up.

The trial began on Friday night at Kingsholm, with referee Anthony Woodthorpe first communicating with the crowd when issuing a yellow card to Gloucester’s Freddie Clarke for tackling Bath’s Nahum Merigan in the air after 19 minutes. London Irish against Saracens is set to also feature the trial system next week, and supporters have been asked by Premiership Rugby to provide feedback on social media after the matches with their thoughts on the trial system. 

“The match officials team is very happy to work with Premiership Rugby and BT Sport to support this trial. It’s good to look at innovations that can help improve the fan experience at matches and increase understanding of the work match officials do and how they work as a team to reach certain decisions."

Tony Spreadbury, RFU Head of Professional Game Match Officials Team

Phil Winstanley, the Rugby Director at Premiership Rugby said: “Currently, the fan watching the game at home can hear the match-official discussions with the TMO but those inside the stadium without one of our Fan Radios cannot. We hope that this will improve the matchday experience in the stadium and allow those at the ground to understand the discussion and rationale for decisions made.”

 

Analysis: A positive step for fans but there will be teething problems

 

In theory this is an excellent idea, and it’s almost unusual that rugby hasn’t attempted to introduce a talkback system so that fans in stadiums can hear from officials sooner.

NFL games would be almost impossible to follow without explanations for each foul being announced to the crowd, and rugby union is no less complex. Returning to live matches after the pandemic, having watched all their team’s games throughout the pandemic on BT Sport, supporters have been readjusting to not being able to hear explanations between officials, going back to interpreting the referee’s signals and watching TMO reviews without being able to hear the discussions.

It’s also worth stressing that those moments where the referee’s microphone is turned on welcomingly do not add any extra time onto matches, which is the last thing the game needs.

However, this is very much a trial, and certainly not without some technical difficulties. Supporters who attended the first outing for the system in Gloucester’s game with Bath on Friday night, a 71-10 thrashing in the Premiership Rugby Cup, informed Telegraph Sport that they could barely hear the audio coming from referee Anthony Woodthorpe’s second microphone, which was switched on for any incidents involving TMO so that supporters could hear Woodthorpe’s explanations.

Premiership Rugby touted Gloucester’s “excellent public address system” in their release announcing the trial but the feedback suggests otherwise regarding the PA system’s output, with supporters in the Shed and the West Terrace claiming they couldn’t hear anything.

“This is the first I knew about it,” one supporter told Telegraph Sport. “Sat in the big stand, didn’t hear a thing. Not even unintelligible noise. Didn’t know it was happening.”

Which suggests there are a few technical gremlins to be addressed. London Irish’s Premiership Rugby Cup game with Saracens next Friday will be the next fixture to trial the system, at the recently constructed Brentford Community Stadium, might produce better results and give supporters more of an insight into what’s happening during those moments involving the TMO.

Fix the technical issues and supporters will undoubtedly benefit from hearing what’s going on. But it will take some fine tuning.

Original article published 13.11.21 on theTelegraph website.

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