It’s not often that the television match official receives a great deal of publicity ahead of matches but that’s exactly what has happened ahead of the Lions’ first Test against the Springboks.
South African Marius Jonker has found himself thrust into the centre of the controversy after being handed the role for the Cape Town curtain-raiser at late notice.
Kiwi official Brendon Pickerill was originally supposed to be in the role but had to withdraw due to Covid-related travel issues.
Because of the virus, World Rugby has insisted that the contingency plan was always to appoint a local official to the role.
READ MORE: The one player in the Lions XV to play South Africa who makes Brian O’Driscoll nervous
READ MORE: Lions publicly call out Irish pundit Neil Francis over offensive comments about Marcus Smith
Non-neutral TMOs and officials were commonplace in the Guinness PRO14 and usually resulted in uproar among supporters following tight calls in matches.
But the optics of a non-neutral official being part of the officiating team in the biggest Test match of the years to date is not great.
Lions boss Warren Gatland is said to be furious with the appointment of the 53-year-old from the Northern Cape.
Jonker was TMO for the Lions’ only defeat of the tour so far to South Africa ‘A’ and, along with referee Jaco Peyper, decided not to red card Faf de Klerk for a high tackle on Josh Navidi. It was a decision that Gatland disagreed with at the time.
Lions forwards coach Robin McBryde said of the appointment: “It was a bit unexpected.
“We only found out on Wednesday. There’s a slight like lack of foresight because there’s a reason why that position is neutral. There’s no plan B put in place. You’ve just got to get on with it really.”
So, who is Marius Jonker?
In short, he’s a vastly-experienced official.
He refereed Test match rugby for nine years, between 2005 and 2014, including at the Rugby World Cup in 2007, where he took charge of three matches and was a touch judge in the semi-final.
Since becoming a TMO, his most high profile game to date is the 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final between New Zealand and England.
Adding to the controversy over his non-neutrality is the fact that his son, Rynhardt, is team-mates with a number of Springboks, including captain Siya Kolisi, at the Sharks.
How much influence could he have?
In recent years, the role of the TMO has become increasingly important. They are more involved in the action now than they have ever been.
They cannot come into the match for anything, but can call on the referee to pause the game to watch video replays over potential foul play that the referee has missed in real time.
TMO’s can also be called upon by the referee to check for foul play and to review whether or not a try has been scored.
The final decision will always lie with the on-field referee but it is very rare that a referee will go against the view of their TMO.
Why can the job not be done remotely?
It’s been raised that the role of the TMO could be performed from overseas by an official in Australasia or France, for example.
But the risk of losing a feed to an official that is thousands of miles away was deemed too great and, despite how unpalatable a non-neutral TMO may be, it was deemed the preferable option.
For the latest rugby updates sent straight to your inbox, you can sign up to our ROAR or Welsh rugby newsletters.