The upheaval in the technology market over the last few weeks has made me remiss in terms of updating this blog with details of what’s been going on with rugby. Right now it’s an important time for the national teams who are scheduled to play in the Rugby World Cup (RWC) in New Zealand. RWC begins in two weeks and the teams are busy shaking down to establish their final selections and determine how they will approach their games in the group stage.
There have been a series of warm-up games between different countries as part of the preparation. These games allow coaches to establish whether their teams are on the right track in terms of fitness, tactics, and personnel and although the games are definitely not played under the same pressure-cooker conditions as a full Six Nations or Tri-Nations test, they’re still ultra-competitive because all the players want to show that they should be in the first team.
My assignment from the IRB was to go to Cesena in northern Italy to be the TV Match Official (TMO) for the match between Italy and Japan on August 13. Cesena is a small city south of Bologna and the game was played in the local soccer stadium.
The flight into Bologna (BLQ) with Ryanair was well up to the airline’s normal standard – lots of queuing, a rush to get good seats on the plane, too much bright yellow scattered around the interior of the Boeing 737-800, and indifferent service from a stressed cabin crew. However, apart from low fares, the good thing about Ryanair is that they generally land on time and so they did in BLQ. We then had the shortest bus ride in history to transfer from the plane into the terminal. Loading the bus took about twenty times longer than the 80m transit. Oh well, at least we were safe from marauding vehicles prowling the airport apron.
The FIR (Italian rugby union) had arranged a pick-up to take us to Cesena, where we arrived at the Hotel Alexander, located near the edge of town nestling between the bus and train stations. The hotel was pleasant enough. That is, until the swarm of tiger mosquitoes swung into action around 6pm to bite anyone who wasn’t protected by insect repellent.
The FIR organized an excellent eight-course dinner for the refereeing team (Romain Poite, Jerome Garces, and Pascal Gauzere, all from France) on the night before the game at a restaurant located at the Hippodrome (horse racing track) in Cesena. The racing wasn’t the kind normally seen in Ireland where races are usually on the “flat” or over jumps. Instead, the horse pulled a two-wheeled trolley where the jockey sat. The important thing was that I won the only bet placed during the night, proving that I have a wicked eye when it comes to assessing the chances of horses that I have never seen before and will never see again.
The match was scheduled for a 20:45 kick-off to accommodate the needs of television so we spent the morning of the game visiting the market in Cesena, where the stalls seemed to go on for ever but had a sad lack of variety. A quick siesta followed after lunch before the refereeing team was taken to the ground at 7pm.
All the usual pre-match arrangements were taken care of quickly. The TMO is really only concerned with a small list: where will we sit during the game, how will we communicate with the referee and TV director during reviews of potential scores, and how the game clock is run. Heineken Cup and other matches have official timekeepers who have charge of the clocks displayed in the stadium and on TV whereas international matches often give this responsibility to the TMO. Basically the task is to maintain the game clock by stopping it whenever there’s an injury or other outage and resuming it when play restarts. The timekeeper also advises the referee via radio when there is a couple of minutes to play in each half and when time expires, after which it’s up to the referee to decide when to stop the game, usually the next time that the ball goes dead.
The teams depend on accurate times to know when to make impact substitutions and so on, so it’s pretty important that the right time is kept. Often this is a matter of common sense for the timekeeper. The referee is supposed to say “Time Off” when they want to stop the game clock and “Time On” when play resumes. However, it sometimes happens that the referee has to take care of other matters on the pitch and forgets to instruct the timekeeper, in which case you use your discretion.
In this case, I was located in a small truck at the rear of the stadium and provided with a 12 inch standard definition screen. This was a little disappointing as most of the major broadcasters that cover international rugby now provide high-definition 20 inch (or larger screens) for reviews. High-definition makes an enormous difference to aspects such as the lines (goal, touch, and dead-ball) and makes the whole decision-making process much easier. Such is life.
Communications with the referee were reasonable after a couple of initial hiccups. Time-keeping was interesting because the stadium usually hosts soccer matches, which don’t use stopped game clocks. Instead, soccer games are timed from 0 to 45 minutes in a half and the officials then indicate how much additional time is to be played at the end of each half. So the controls for the stadium clock were beside the pitch rather than anywhere near the van. Clearly nothing could be done to automate the synchronization of stadium clock with TV clocks (shown in the graphics alongside the score) and the official game clock that I was running, so we ended up with a system of human coordination with a broadcasting employee situated beside me in the van monitoring my actions to stop and start the clock and then communicating those actions to other people who controlled the stadium and TV clocks. It all sounds very complex and it was at times, mostly when someone forgot to stop or start a clock and had to then adjust the time on the fly to resynchronize with the game clock. But it all worked out in the end.
Italy won the match 31-24 after leading 14-0 after ten minutes and then allowing Japan to come back into the game to a point where either team could have won. I’m not sure that either team was particularly satisfied with their performance but it was another step along the way to RWC.
The post-match function was an informal open-air dinner beside the stadium and we got back to the hotel by 12:30am. On Sunday, we took an efficient train to Bologna to take the chance to look around the city before flying back to Dublin on Monday. Bologna was hot (39 degrees C) and sticky, but very nice and well worth the effort to get there. We stayed at the StarHotel Excelsoir, which is well worth considering if you ever have to stay in Bologna as it’s located right opposite the railway station, close to a number of good restaurants, and beside the bus stop for the transit to the airport.
The Ryanair return to Dublin was as expected. I’m not involved in any other international games in the near future so I shall be able to enjoy RWC at a distance. Next on the agenda are some Rabodirect ProD12 (the old Magner’s League) games during RWC following by the restart of the Heineken Cup in November after everyone gets back from New Zealand.