Reason: Trial by television taking over sport
Sport is turning into trial by TV. The other night I wasn't sure if I was watching Super Rugby, Ashes test cricket or the X Factor. It is not hard to imagine a situation in 25 years when the refs no longer make the big decisions in a match, but play is paused while you the home jury press a button and decide 'TRY or NO TRY'.
I felt for Chris Pollock the other night. After 23 minutes of the match between the Blues and the Chiefs, Pollock showed Kane Barrett a red card for making contact with an opposition player's head. It may be ironic that Pollock was also the ref when James Horwill trod on Alun Wyn Jones's head, but Pollock made the correct decision on Saturday night, something the judiciary lamentably failed to do in the Horwill case.
But the days when TV commentators like Richie Benaud let the action largely speak for itself are long gone. Instead we get a running commentary, a play within a play, during which the ref is regularly criticised. It is not a good example to set all the parents who spend Saturday morning on the touchlines, often shouting abuse at the volunteer in the middle.
The following commentary played out on Saturday night...
Tony Johnson: "Well, he was lying all over the place, wasn't he?"
Matthew Cooper: "Just a little careless. He might have brushed his head."
TJ: "He's getting close to the head."
MC: "It's just reckless. The intent's not there. He's gone over the top."
Ali Williams: "What do you mean. This is f...ed. What sort of game are we playing?"
Chris Pollock: "Doesn't matter, mate."
TJ: "Oh, no."
CP: "You made contact with your boot on the head of a player. Red card."
MC: "No, no, I'm sorry. It wasn't intentional. Yellow at most."
TJ: "It does look a very severe call. That's the night for Kane Barrett which is a real shame."
The trouble with trial by TV is that it is emotive, it disrespects the ref and it is frequently wrong. Intent, as Pollock would make clear later (and which is why the NZ judicial officer was so grievously wrong about Horwill), is not relevant. The ref rules on fact. And that creates consistency when it comes to foul play.
But it didn't stop Blues coach John Kirwan from grabbing the microphone after the match. I have great respect for Kirwan, but sometimes he needs to count to ten. JK said, "It was just trying to get him out of the way. There was no intent in it whatsoever. This is a professional sport. We've got millions of viewers all around the world watching."
Kirwan then asked Lyndon Bray to drop Pollock from reffing the following week. But JK now looks pretty daft. As does the TV jury. Firstly, it was not up to Pollock to rule on intent. Secondly, all this second guessing - exactly what the IRB intended to avoid by removing intent from the issue - looks pretty foolish given that the same player had gone out of his way to tread on Ben Tameifuna's head three minutes earlier.
Despite being in the right, Pollock felt compelled to justify himself on radio. He spoke well, but there was a weariness about it all. He had taken one too many punches. It was also a further trial on the airwaves.
Cricket is even closer to the X-Factor scenario. Many commentators decided that the first Ashes test was not decided by cricketing ability, but by the rival captains' facility with the Direct Review System. Australia's captain and players were only right with two out of nine of their referrals, but Alistair Cook was outstandingly accurate.
It decided the match. Stuart Broad nicked the ball towards the end of England's second innings, but Michael Clarke had no referrals left. But when Brad Haddin was given not out with 14 runs needed, Cook was able to go to the DRS.
Is this really how we want sport to be? My mind goes back to the Masters when Tiger Woods was tried by TV. Golf used to work on an assumption of honesty. Some cheats prospered and the occasional mistake was made, but the game was surely better for it overall. Now golf also has trial by TV.
Like many fans of rugby in New Zealand I am thoroughly looking forward to the Super Rugby play-offs. My money is on a Bulls-Crusaders final - I am told Tabai Matson is starting to have his considerable influence on the Canterbury men - but it is so close, anything could happen. It is not a stretch to say that all six of the qualifiers could have failed to win last weekend.
But what I dread is that the whole thing could be distorted by TV. In the Blues-Chiefs match last weekend there was a ghastly moment near the end when Jonathon White didn't put his flag up for a foot in touch, but signalled his concerns to Pollock, who then blew up play for a review before the Chiefs had touched the ball down. Both White and Pollock were paralysed in their decision making by the spectre of TV.
I have a terrible dream in which the Crusaders final hopes are resting on a decision by the ref. Steve Walsh is watching himself on the big screen as usual, then picks up the ball, dashes down the other end and scores. But Walsh wants to check his grounding. So he turns to the jury comprised mainly of Bulls fans.
There is a nervous wait. Then up it flashes.
The Dominion Post