What football can learn from rugby to make VAR a success
Former international referee Ed Morrison, who was key in introducing the TMO to his own sport, explains why the beautiful game has nothing to worry about.
After the early trials of VAR in the recent FA and EFL Cup ties, it is clear that plenty of suspicion still surrounds video technology in football.
Rugby, though has already been through this all before – and come out stronger on the other side.
This year’s Six Nations – which England are to win in the latest rugby betting – will be the 18th tournament in which television match officials have been used.
Having become one of the first major sports to embrace video referees – only six years after the game had even turned professional – rugby was an unlikely moderniser.
But few are better-placed to comment on the overwhelmingly positive effect that technology has had than Ed Morrison, the Northern Hemisphere’s first ever full-time rugby referee.
After retiring from officiating in 2001, having been to three World Cups and taken charge of over 40 internationals, he was influential in overseeing the introduction and establishment of the TMO in the modern game.
Not that Morrison, who was awarded an OBE in the recent New Year’s Honours list for his services to rugby union, blames football for dragging its heels.
"I would be loath to be critical of football,” says the 66-year-old, who also managed England’s elite referees between 2008 and 2013 before taking up a role working with Pro12 officials in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
“All of us are slow to accept change in all walks of life.
“In rugby, some people accepted professionalism and what it meant, whereas I struggled with it.
“I realise now that I was probably quite foolish. Now we have a professional game that everybody buys into and that’s great. And that's exactly what will happen with the video replay system.”
Morrison was regarded as one of the best in the business at a time when referees were unable to ask for assistance, so knows more than most about the difficulty of making big decisions under pressure.
After all, it was he who, during the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, denied South Africa a try after Ruben Kruger had burrowed over the line off the back of a scrum.
South Africa, hosting their first sporting event following the end of Apartheid, ultimately went on to win the game in extra time, with the trophy presentation between newly-appointed president Nelson Mandela and Springbok captain Francois Pienaar enduring as one of rugby’s most iconic moments.
"Some people said to me afterwards that was definitely a try,” says Morrison.
“If I was refereeing that game today, would I have referred that upstairs? Yes, I would.
“But I'd rather people criticise me for making a mistake than for doing something dishonestly. Because if I can't see it, how can I give it? There was too much doubt for me to award that try.”
That potential for ambiguity has only increased in the modern game, with players fitter, faster and stronger than ever before.
The influence of technology has therefore had to develop accordingly.
Whereas in the early days, the TMO would only be called into action to clear up contentious calls about whether or not tries had been grounded or feet had strayed into touch, it is now responsible for monitoring build-up play for everything from forward passes to dangerous play.
Not that it was all plain sailing.
"We had a problem at the beginning in rugby where the crowd got irritable,” says Morrison.
“The first game that was played in the Premiership with the TMO, I think there were something like 10 referrals.
“The crowd were slow hand-clapping and all hell was let loose about the amount of time it was taking.”
Which is why he would urge those football fans who remain unconvinced about the new innovations to remain patient.
"These are all things that happen when you start a new process like this. Any system you bring in is complex, and you're going to have some humps and bumps along the way,” he says.
“The match officials have to become comfortable with the process and the system, and that sometimes takes a bit of time to bed in.”
Of course, decisions in contact sports like rugby and football will always have an element of subjectivity that isn’t present in non-contact sports like tennis or cricket.
That, though, should not deflect from the overall improvement in decision-making that technology has helped bring about.
“There isn't a 100 per cent, foolproof system,” says Morrison. “It just doesn’t exist, because human beings are human beings.
“People make judgments, and sometimes you disagree with those judgments.
“But it's imperative that soccer, rugby and other professional sports use the technology that's available. It would be crazy not to.
“More big decisions are made correctly now than ever in the history of the game. There are the odd occasions, but they are very odd.”
Morrison believes that that, in turn, has subsequently improved the conduct of players and coaches.
“Their behaviour in general is fantastic, because they've got confidence in the system,” he says.
“How many times do you watch a soccer game on TV and the managers are going off the wall afterwards complaining about a decision?
“You don't see any instances of McEnroe going potty among tennis players, now, do you?”
And, ultimately, given the compelling case study provided by rugby, Morrison insists there's no point fighting the changes – even if they do take a bit of getting used to.
"It will probably take soccer a bit longer to come to terms with the new process. Not the players and the coaches, but the fans, because there's a lot more of them," says Morrison.
"But now it's been introduced, I don't think there will be any going back. That's what I found with rugby. All you did was move forwards, you didn't move backwards.
“You mark my words, we could have this conversation in two years' time and say: 'What were we worried about?'”