Dane Coles, Bernard Foley, Liam Williams share concerns over rugby, referees and TMOs

Leading international players have expressed similar reservations about the way in which rugby is being played, citing the increasing involvement of television officials and the especially contentious area of accidental head contact.

All Blacks hooker Dane Coles, Wallabies flyhalf Bernard Foley and Wales fullback Liam Williams all are now playing for Kubota Spears Funabashi Tokyo Bay in Japan League One.

Coles and Williams both played at last year’s World Cup in France. Foley has played 76 tests for the Wallabies and has been in Japan for the past four seasons. Coles is retired, Foley is not expecting a recall to the Australia team anytime soon but Williams is expected to return to the Wales lineup when the Japan season is over.

While their backgrounds are varied and there are positional differences, even a different hemispheric outlook, the trio share concerns about the international game and question whether rugby is presenting its best possible face to the world.

Last year’s World Cup produced some extraordinary contests, especially in the knockout rounds when a series of matches including the final between South Africa and New Zealand were decided by a single point. Still, there were many fans who believed TMOs (television match officials) involved themselves in games more often than their brief should allow, creating stoppages which were frustrating to players and spectators.

On a more ominous note, World Rugby has referred 200 incidents of abuse or death threats made against officials at the World Cup to law enforcement agencies in seven countries. England referee Wayne Barnes retired after controlling the final, citing threats to himself and his family.

“The abuse the refs are getting is obviously pretty shocking,” Coles told The Associated Press. “I know the refs are trying to make the right calls. But I reckon it’s something that needs to be changed, the delays on all the calls. That’s the frustrating part of watching.”

Coles experienced the World Cup both as player and spectator. He wasn’t part of the All Blacks match side later in the tournament and for that reason had a taste of the fan experience.

“I was in the stands a bit towards the end (of the World Cup) and that was the frustrating part, the cards and (officials) burrowing down and trying to get every little decision 100%,” he said. “I don’t know what (a better game) looks like but people want to see a game that’s not determined by cards I suppose. Let the boys play.”

Foley agreed that rugby is not as fluid as it once was, that reviews of refereeing decisions have made the game stop-start. He feels rugby needs to consider ways to make the game faster to retain its appeal in the face of competition from other codes.

“In my experience of going back (to Australia) and playing at the end of 2022, I found the game wasn’t as aerobic as it had been,” Foley said. “I think it had become more intense and more short, sharp passages of play but then with long periods of recovery.

“So that made it more of a power game, probably becoming a bit more like NFL where you have that power aspect and those explosive aspects but you don’t really have the fatigue and the aerobic component that then opens the game up.”

Foley said protecting players from head injuries while not reacting excessively to accidental head contact was difficult.

“The biggest thing is it’s still a contact sport,” he said. “We still have to have player welfare at the forefront of our mind. But being a collision sport, having a couple of 125-kilogram (275-pound) guys running at each other, there’s going to be mistakes, there’s going to be unfortunate collisions.”

Williams flew home last weekend to watch Wales play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament and enjoyed what he saw. But he shares concerns about intrusive refereeing.

“I agree with the lads. It’s definitely slowing the game down,” he said. “They’re trying to get things 100% right and you’re not always going to. It’s the same as us as players. Accidental stuff. It’s definitely slowing the game down but what the fix is for that I don’t know.”

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