International TMO and Queens' College fellow Rowan Kitt's insight into the role ahead of the Rugby World Cup in Japan
Rowan Kitt’s office is in a serene setting.
Nestled on the corner of the second floor of the Fisher Building at Queens’ College, it has majestic views of the Mathematical Bridge and the River Cam.
The silence and solitude seem perfect for the Queens’ fellow to concentrate on the tasks in hand as the college’s development director.
It is also a far cry from his other ‘life’, where the hullabaloo of the alickadoos at Twickenham or the Stade de France make sure not to give Kitt a moment’s peace.
For the past six years, Kitt has been a Television Match Official, more colloquially referred to as a TMO, and it goes from the sublime to the ridiculous when he swaps the perfect location of his day job for a truck outside a rugby ground on a weekend.
The discussion regarding video technology is particularly pertinent at present, with the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referees) in football, but it has been around in rugby since 2001.
The haven of Kitt’s office, away from the masses, could hardly be more ideal to drill down the role of the TMO, the use of technology during games and misconceptions.
“Our whole mantra is about staying off the screen,” Kitt is keen to stress. “We don’t want to be on the screen.
“We want to be under the radar the whole game. We want nobody to be talking about the team of four after the game – if they’re not talking about us then we’ve had a great game. That’s what we swear by.”
Everyone has an opinion about the TMO, whether it is used too much or not enough, and the impact of elongated decision-making, particularly for those inside the ground.
‘Going to the big screen’ is becoming one of the new sporting cliches so when Kitt talks of staying off the screen, you understand that its sole use is to, as he says, “achieve the perfect outcome”.
A TMO’s primary role is two-fold, to check the legality of tries scored and for any possible foul play – although some believe it should be used a lot more widely.
It means that 50-year-old Kitt, who did his first Test match in 2016, is watching multiple screens in the truck at any given time.
He has the main live feed, then the match on a three to eight-second delayed feed and, depending on which country he is in, multiple other screens as well – almost like the Rick Wakeman of the rugby scene.
“This is one of the great things about TMOs people don’t understand, I’m dependent on what the director can show me,” he explains.
“If he can’t show me the decisive angle which shows whether a player’s foot is on the line, I can’t make the call.
“Or it looks like an easy decision but I haven’t got the evidence to show that a player dropped the ball before he scores, so the try stands.”
Kitt says that he is viewing the game exactly the same as a TV audience, but it is easy to challenge this assertion.
As spectators, we watch matches for entertainment and observe the natural run of play, not what is happening in the background, but the TMO is viewing it to ensure fairness and legality.
To borrow Kitt’s own phrase, he is making sure not to miss the bear walking in the background – checking for any reason whatsoever that a try may not be awarded or for foul play.
The TMO has from when a try is scored to when the conversion is taken to find an angle that may mean the try should not be awarded.
“It’s not to disprove it for the sake of it,” Kitt stresses. “I have to check whether it is a legitimate grounding.
“Every grounding at top level, I check automatically.”
The best example of that from last season was in the opening Six Nations fixture of the campaign, between France and Wales at the Stade de France.
With Wales trailing, full-back Liam Williams got through to touch down what at first sight seemed a legitimate try in the 20th minute.
“I thought it was a try straight away,” says Kitt. “Barnesy [referee Wayne Barnes] gives the try, happy days. But then I saw something that didn’t look right, and asked to be shown it on camera X quickly.
“I thought ‘oh, he’s dropped it’. I said ‘Barnesy, we need to check it’. He stops the conversion, and I say ‘I’m going to show you a knock-on, you’re going to disallow this try’.
“He says OK, sees it on the screen and disallows it.”
It is striking to think about the speed in which Kitt’s brain is processing everything he sees on the pitch, juggling that with the monitors around him, but he almost shrugs it off without acknowledgement.
What cannot be ignored, however, is the pressure the TMO is under to make the right call.
There were 60,000 people inside the Stade de France for France v Wales, and many millions more watching on TV, so it is difficult to fathom the stresses involved. In that instance, he was also dependent on the television director, who is French and in a different truck, showing the right clip.
It is easy to understand why Kitt’s heart beats quicker when someone makes the television screen gesture with their hands on finding out what he does for the first time.
“It’s why when you work together with a referee more and more, it’s absolutely essential you build that trust,” he says.“You wouldn’t have a scrum-half and a fly-half, or two centres, going into a game never having played together. You wouldn’t do that now with a referee and a TMO.
“The pressure is unbelievable because you’ve got to move quickly, you’ve got to know all the laws, you’ve got to know what’s smart to call at that particular time in that particular game, you’ve got to look at consistency. You’ve got to make a judgement call.”
There is a big gulf between a referee and a TMO though, with referees full-time at the highest level and TMOs part-time, which means Kitt has to juggle his role at Queens’ with the rugby circuit and family life.
He has, though, built up a strong partnership and understanding with Wayne Barnes, one of the world’s leading officials.
They have worked together on some of the biggest matches, including Ireland’s wins over New Zealand in Chicago in 2016 and Dublin in 2018.
“The referee has to trust you and know that as soon as my voice comes in, there is a good reason,” says Kitt.
“I can look at Barnesy on the pitch and see what he is thinking.
“He absolutely relies on me to have his back so high tackles, things he’s missed, hand on the floor – if the team of three miss it then I come in.
“The skill is knowing when to come in, and when not to come in.
“We talk about uncomfortable moments. He will see a high tackle and we don’t say anything, and we will wait to see if there is a crowd reaction or an injury to a player before he says to me ‘high tackle anyone?’ or ‘how did that look?’.
“I look at the delayed screen and say ‘no, play on’, and he trusts that absolutely.
“We work so hard at it, we put hours into going through clips, going through situations. We role play it.”
Kitt describes the TMO as a facilitating role to the referee, who is the leader of the team of four, which also includes the assistant referees.
“The biggest skill in being a TMO is when not to say anything, when not to press the button,” he says.
As the importance of video technology in sport becomes more pronounced, it is amazing to think that the TMO role is only part-time.
It may have mixed blessings for Kitt though, who clearly enjoys his work at Queens’ and is able to use his rugby travel to facilitate a global network for the college, organising alumni get-togethers at many of the venues around the world. And the view out from his office at Queens’ will always trump a truck in a stadium car park.
'VAR can work well in football'
The arrival of Video Assistant Referees (VAR) in football has been a long time coming, believes Rowan Kitt.
The technology was used at the World Cup in Russia and at this year’s Women’s World Cup, and will be introduced to the Premier League this forthcoming season.
“It’s long overdue,” said the rugby union TMO. “It will be a lot better in football because it can take the sting out of all these games and the hate between clubs, sets of fans and players that lingers for years afterwards because the decisions can be so wrong.
“They have the perfect tool to address that. If they put it on the screen, the fans at least see the guy was offside then they can understand why the goal was disallowed. Even if they don’t agree with it, they can see it and that will mitigate all that anger. You have to get the correct outcomes in professional sport, wherever possible.”