Gregor Paul 's Opinion

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Keep machines out of sport

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If only Steve Jobs were still alive, then sports administrators could put him in a headlock until he agreed to build some clever device that could faultlessly referee any sport.

That seems to be where we are heading - towards a sporting world where humans play under the watchful eye of machines. It's kind of worrying, a modern take on Animal Farm: two legs good, four batteries better.

There's barely a sport where players don't spend inordinate amounts of time staring at giant screens waiting for the magic beeps, flashing lights and graphics to divulge their fate.

Tennis and cricket have that cursed Hawk-Eye thing - an infallible bit of kit that holds everyone in suspense, more so than those forsaken reality show hosts, and hogs the stage with its indisputable rulings. The NFL, NRL, AFL and NBA all use technology in one form or another to assist the officials.

The machine rules and like the good little humans we are, we accept its judgement as final and buy this idea that sport is all the better for removing human error.

Rugby is another sport increasingly reliant on the electronics industry and is accelerating its mission towards machine subservience with one of the more curious and surely ill-fated experiments being trialled in the English Premiership.

The TMO has been given extended powers to trawl through footage if the referee suspects there may have been an infringement in the build-up to a try.

By all accounts, the Harlequins versus Wasps game last weekend had all the farce of an Alan Ayckbourn play. A 42-40 scoreline indicates the game was a classic and probably would have been had it not been for the fact the TMO was asked to pretty much watch the entire game and rule on just about everything.

Rugby used to be relatively simple: big hairy bloke plonks ball over line, referee rules try or no try. For the last 10 years or so, it's been: big hairy bloke plonks ball over the line, referee rules try or if he's not sure, he asks TMO for help. Now, in England, its hairy bloke plonks ball over the line and everyone stands around waiting regardless to see if there was some minuscule infringement 26 phases earlier.

Sadly, this latest development is not a surprise, as it has been apparent that rugby, like most other sports, has lost faith in the idea of human officials. Humans make mistakes and goodness gracious what an imperfect world that creates.

Rugby's unfathomable rule book is too dense for a mere human to navigate, so why not allow the machines to lend a helping hand?

Remove human error from the officiating and create the perfect game? Except it's not perfect at all because human error is the essence of sport. All sports need heroes and villains, injustices, lucky breaks and random decisions that make no sense. Sport is unscripted theatre - the unpredictable nature is what draws people in - the idea that careers could be made or broken by one decision; dreams shattered by a moment of madness or history made by something no one ever expected.

Frankly, where is the soul of any sport when machines are in charge? Would the legend of John McEnroe ever have been created if he had been forced to rage against Hawk-Eye? "You cannot be serious?" he might have yelled, but hawke-eye can't be anything but serious, it knows no other way. Sure, Hawk-Eye is relentlessly accurate, but sport needs flaws both in its players and its officials.

It was the raging combustibility and burning sense of injustice that made McEnroe the compelling character he was; made tennis of that era so appealing.

Those who have come closest to sporting perfection - snooker legend Steve Davis, Pete Sampras, Tiger Woods - were, frankly, dull, or at least Woods was until his colourful secret life became public.

Individual sports will find they too will be considered dull if they remove the chance of a massive stuff-up by an official.

Here's the proof: the 2007 World Cup was a dire tournament but is still, even now, more talked about than the vastly improved 2011 event, all because of the buffoonery of one referee.

The 1986 football World Cup - same: the defining moment? 'The hand of God' - the blatant handball by Maradona to score against England that five billion people saw immediately and one man, Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nasser, somehow missed.

Would the drama have been so intense between these two countries the next time they met at the 1998 World Cup had it not been for the myopic Nasser?

Refereeing mistakes are part of the package. They will be made - hopefully only sporadically. But as tough as they can be to take at times, they add to the overall mix: they do their bit to intensify rivalries, to create future heroes and villains and generally build interest.

Ask the players - they can live with referees making mistakes. It's annoying but ultimately Karmic: hard done by Wayne Barnes in 2007, maybe the All Blacks were well treated by Craig Joubert in 2011. They'd rather take their chances with humans than spend their Saturday nights, hands on hips, staring at big screens for minutes at a time while the TMO works his way back a dozen or so phases hunting for something, anything, to give the referee peace of mind he's making the right call.

No doubt Apple will build an I-Official soon enough - a giant tablet-thing with legs and all the relevant refereeing apps. It would create the perfect world but that's actually the last thing sport needs.

- Herald on Sunday

Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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