Referee Jerome Garces (centre), assistant referee Jaco Peyper (right), and assistant referee Romain Poite consult before showing Sonny Bill Williams a red card during Saturday’s second test against the Lions in Wellington. PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

By Jake Beleski

jake.beleski@age.co.nz

Anybody who watched the enthralling second test between the All Blacks and British and Irish Lions on Saturday night would have become accustomed to the sound of George Ayoub’s voice.

The television match official (TMO) had a busy night, not so much for reviewing potential tries, but for keeping an eye on incidents of foul play during the match.

The recurring “check, check” comment could be heard coming through the referee’s communication devices, indicating when Ayoub felt the need to intervene because an incident required urgent attention.

The increased use of the TMO in areas that were once policed by the officials on the field is part of the reason assistant referees are experiencing a lesser involvement in international rugby matches.

Former Masterton mayor and international rugby referee, Bob Francis, said the reduced role of the assistant referees was having both positive and negative effects.

“I think the reduction of involvement of the assistant referees is a wee bit of an issue.

“I think what we’re seeing now in the game, at international level especially, is that the assistant referee now has a more minor role in terms of flagging for foul play or anything else . . . their role has diminished, while the role of the TMO has increased.”

The increased use of the TMO was due to the “expectations of these top sides and their coaches and supporters, that they get the key decisions around scoring tries and foul play right”, Francis said.

“There’s so much at stake in this professional era, and I think in many ways rugby is leading the way in international sport around how we do this.”

Everyone understands the pressure the players are under to perform, but Francis said it was easy to overlook the scrutiny the referees come under every time they officiate a test match.

He compared officiating in a Lions series to refereeing the semi-final of a World Cup, because of the quality of the two sides.

“There’s no question it’s right up there as far as internationals go.

“There was enormous pressure on him (Garces), but I thought he was well prepared, and it was a pretty mature performance.”

As for the red card handed out to Sonny Bill Williams for a nasty shoulder charge into the head of Lions’ winger Anthony Watson, Francis said he left the officials with no other option.

“We have the ongoing debate around concussion and serious injury, and I think the game and its millions of supporters around the world are demanding high standards in that area.

“The law has changed in the last 12 months, and there is a very strong bottom line around that sort of action now.”

Both sides have been involved in plenty of off the ball scuffles, but Francis said it was only gamesmanship.

“They know now that actually doing something would cause enormous problems.

“Twenty or 30 years ago that pushing and shoving would have moved to a punch-up, but that’s gone from our game.”

Francis was pleased with how Garces had controlled proceedings in what was a brutal test match, but said there was one area he would like to see improved for the third and deciding test this Saturday.

And that improvement would involve more input from the assistant referees.

“The one small negative from Saturday’s game was the policing of the offside lines.

“There were a few occasions where both teams were encroaching on that offside line, and they’ll be looking for a bit of improvement there.”

Because of the physical aspects of the game the referees tended to get sucked into the contest that was going on at the ruck or post tackle, and offside lines could be missed, he said.

Another French referee (Romain Poite) will be in control of this week’s test, and Francis said he would “be up for the occasion”.

“He’s more experienced than Jerome, and the big thing the All Blacks have to do is make sure he’s not part of the equation as far as their performance goes.”

Poite has been in this situation before, having refereed the deciding test match between the Lions and Australia in 2013.

The Lions won 41-16 on that occasion.