Cameras and the TMO


Following on my post describing some of the challenges facing officials engaged in professional rugby, I received some notes asking me what kind of TV camera angles are available to a TMO when they are asked by a referee to give a decision about a try. I think the question is driven by the pictures that audiences see at home during the time between the referee stopping play and the decision being taken. There’s a feeling that the TMO has access to more cameras and more angles than the TV viewer so the question really is what those pictures might be.

The first thing to say is that many different TV broadcasters cover rugby and they all approach the job slightly differently. For example, in Ireland we have TG4 and RTE, in France there’s Canal Plus and FR2, and in the UK there’s the BBC and Sky Sports. Broadcasters decide whether to send their own crews to matches or to hire an independent company to do the job.

The next variable is the director. Each director will have their own way of covering matches and will ask their camera crews for different shots and angles. And then there are the camera crews – some are more accustomed to covering rugby and are better able to predict what might happen in a play and where the important action will take place. Others are more “artistic” and produce beautifully framed pictures that might not capture the essential detail that a TMO is interested in when the time comes to determine whether a try is scored. In order or priority our focus is on the ball, goal line, ball carrier, and other bodies that may prevent grounding. We want to know where the ball ended up and how it got there and look to the broadcaster to provide pictures to let us determine this information.

Chart showing TV camera positions for Perpignan v. Leicester Heineken Cup match

When you turn up for a game, the first port of call for the TMO is to locate the director. Often they are to be found in a outside broadcast command center in a large truck parked in close proximity to the stadium. The order of business is to introduce yourself as the TMO and then discuss with the director how they will provide pictures at decision time. We also test the communications equipment to make sure that we have two-way contact with the referee.

The director will have a camera plan similar to the one shown above that describes the placement of the fixed cameras and any hand-held cameras that are available. Each camera is described in terms of its capabilities and the name of the operator and the director uses this information to call for different pictures as the game progresses. You can see the kind of detail that’s available in the chart that’s illustrated.

Fixed cameras are located in the stands or in special stands behind the goals or close to ground level around the half-way line. They are also found in cherry-pickers that are hired for the game (usually these are the high cameras that are positioned behind the goal posts at each end of the ground). Hand-held cameras roam the touch lines to capture close-up action and can be invaluable for touchdown calls, providing they are in good position to capture the play and are not blocked by an assistant referee or players.

The number of cameras varies from match to match depending on its importance and the willingness of the broadcaster to spend money on the coverage. Most high-quality (international and Heineken Cup) games will have two high cameras on one stand and another on the opposite stand, high cameras at each end of the ground, low-level cameras monitoring the goal line from the dead-ball area, and at least two hand-held cameras. Depending on the ground, extra fixed cameras might be installed at low-level on the sideline.

With such an array of cameras following every play we have an excellent chance of being able to see a try being scored, so why does it sometimes take so long for the TMO to make a decision? Well, we first have to listen to what the referee wants us to check. This can be a simple check to ensure that a player grounded the ball properly to score or it can be a more complex affair of checking that no foul play or other action occurred in the immediate vicinity of the try-scoring attempt. Next, we have to be sure that we know what happened and sometimes it just takes a little time to figure it all out. It would be nice if every decision was obvious but the nature of the human body means that trailing legs or leading arms can brush a touch line and then the question is whether the player had grounded the ball before going into touch. Or maybe an opponent slid some part of their body under the ball to prevent grounding. Or maybe the sheer dynamic and physically confrontational nature of rugby led to ten players colliding in a small part of the pitch and a try may or may not have been scored…

A good director who knows rugby will quickly figure out what the best picture and angle will be and will feed it to the TMO. After that it’s just a matter of working the angles and exploring available pictures to determine what happened to the best of the TMO’s ability. We often see different pictures than those shown on the broadcast simply because we might want to look at things in a slightly more intense manner than a viewer might be interested in – but it’s up to the director as to what pictures are broadcast.

Having High-Definition (HD) pictures available makes things easier but this isn’t always the case. HD makes lines clearer and exposes detail that just isn’t available to standard monitors and it helps a TMO understand what has occurred faster and more accurately. It’s a silly position to be in where broadcasters pump HD pictures to people viewing at home while the TMO reviews lesser quality pictures when they make a decision. Hopefully HD will become the standard in the outside broadcasting facilities soon.

So that’s what happens – no magic bullets to help to make decisions and no cloak and mirrors used anywhere. Just sheer hard work after mild panic occurs when the referee stops play and says “Hallo Tony – can you hear me. Can you tell me…”  Good fun all round.

– Tony

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About Tony Redmond ("Thoughts of an Idle Mind")

Exchange MVP, author, and rugby referee
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2 Responses to Cameras and the TMO

  1. Dan Taylor says:

    Tony,
    Thanks for the informative article – it’s hard to find much to read from the TMO’s perspective.
    Does the TMO ever have the chance to watch two camera feeds at the same time, or even to see a timecode with the feed they’re watching? I can see how this would be very useful when, for example, watching for grounding and touch when they can’t both be seen in the same camera.

    • Hi Don,

      We don’t usually see two feeds at the one time. The usual approach is to watch replays from a number of angles (depending on the available camera angles) to pick the one that seems best and then focus in on it to try and make a decision. It all depends on the broadcaster however. Some are better than others. Let’s just leave it at that.

      TR

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