JACK ANDERSON: Is GAA discipline ready for a quickfire championship?

AS Ireland’s Grand Slam celebrations began at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day, Na Piarsaigh and Cuala played out a thrilling draw in the All-Ireland Club hurling final at Croke Park.

The game ebbed and flowed and went to extra-time. Substitutes were vital to both teams.

Na Piarsaigh were, however, missing two Limerick county panellists from their squad, Conor Boylan and Tommy Grimes. Both were serving one-match suspensions having been red-carded in the semi-final win against Slaughtneil.

Player suspensions on the eve of a final put any sport’s disciplinary process under scrutiny.

Here in Australia, the build-up to the Grand Final of the AFL’s women’s competition (AFLW) has been overshadowed by the fact the captain of one of the finalists, Western Bulldogs’ Katie Brennan, is likely to miss this weekend’s final.

Brennan was suspended because of an incident in the last league game of the season.

At the tribunal hearing, the match reviewer (who acts as the AFL’s citing commissioner — a system worth adopting by the GAA) said he was aware of what was at stake for the player but that he had to judge the offence on its merits. 

As reported later by the Melbourne Age newspaper, the match reviewer went on to say: “Otherwise we’d be saying in a prelim (semi-final) for example, ‘go and do what you like’. No one likes to see anyone miss a Grand Final, but my job is to uphold the rules and the guidelines.”

The comments are of interest in a GAA sense because when, in 2015, the GAA’s Dispute Resolution Authority (DRA) decided to quash a one-match ban imposed on Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly for a semi-final replay against Mayo, one of the reasons given was the serious consequences for the player.

That aspect of the decision attracted special criticism, because the feeling was that, although all GAA players are meant to be equal, some were apparently more equal than others.

Stretching a disciplinary process to its late-night limits is not, however, an exclusively GAA predilection.

This week, South Africa appealed an International Cricket Council suspension imposed on one of its players for an incident during the current Test series against Australia.

In a six-hour hearing, three attorneys for South African bowler Kagiso Rabada dissected and debated his shoulder bump against Australia captain Steve Smith in the second match of the series in Port Elizabeth. The appeal was successful.

In Ireland, disciplinary decisions in horse racing have ended up in the courts. In July 2016, for example, trainer Tony Martin obtained an injunction from the High Court allowing one of his horses to run in that year’s Galway Hurdle.

In last year’s Lions Tour, the lawyer attached to the squad managed at a judicial hearing to quash a citing against Ireland’s Seán O’Brien for allegedly striking New Zealand wing Waisake Naholo during the second test.

A key moment in that Lions Tour was the sending-off of Sonny Bill Williams for a shoulder charge on Lions winger Anthony Watson in the same game. Williams subsequently received what amounted to a four-game ban.

The All Blacks successfully argued on appeal that a friendly game against local club opposition should count as one of the suspended games, allowing Williams to return for a Bledisloe Cup game against Australia.

Such is the expectation of legal disputes at sports events globally that the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) provides an on-site dispute resolution service for all major tournaments.

Arbitrator

Next week, for example, I will be the lead arbitrator for CAS at the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast. The organisers’ initial concerns as to my neutrality — I work at an Australian university — were assuaged the minute they heard my Limerick accent.

In some sports, an appeals culture is not particularly prevalent.

Fifa famously refused to countenance an appeal by France’s Laurent Blanc after he was sent off in the semi-final of his home World Cup in 1998. Blanc had clashed with Slaven Bilic after which the Croatian rolled around theatrically.

Imagine the outcry if a GAA player was denied the opportunity to play in an All-Ireland because of a feigned injury?

There are lots of reasons for the appeals culture in the GAA.

One is its long-winded rulebook. Last season, incidents with hurling helmets, notably involving Waterford’s Tadhg de Búrca, were complicated by the specific rule’s unnecessary inclusion of words such as “deliberate” and “dangerous”.

The recent announcement by the GAA president on the need to simplify the rule book is to be welcomed.

Second, the GAA’s rule book is often very prescriptive, leaving referees little option but to show a red card for offences which can often carry an automatic one-match suspension.

With the lack of on-field options such as sin bins, this means that GAA players then search for off-field ways to overturn the referee’s report by way of ‘compelling’ evidence.

If a player is lucky enough that direct video evidence exists, then they might have a chance on appeal.

Video evidence helped clear Corofin full-forward Martin Farragher, who was controversially sent off in the second minute of the All-Ireland Club Football semi-final against Moorefield. He then played in Corofin’s win in the final against Nemo Rangers.

The TG4 cameras did not, however, catch what happened off the ball with Na Piarsaigh’s Conor Boylan and Tommy Grimes but both will be eligible to play in Saturday’s replay.

Third, the culture of appeal is perpetuated by the fact that the GAA’s disciplinary system gives you multiple
avenues of appeal.

Having looked at recent decisions by Croke Park’s Central Appeals Committee (CAC) and the DRA, it now appears to make sense simply to
combine both in one standing appeals board.

The Na Piarsaigh players declined to engage with the GAA’s elongated appeal process as they felt, selflessly, it would impact on their teammates’ preparation for the club final.

Waterford’s Conor Gleeson did likewise prior to last year’s All-Ireland hurling final after being sent off in the semi-final for striking Cork’s Patrick Horgan.

This year’s new championship structures in hurling and football will, however, test the GAA’s disciplinary system in ways that may not yet have been thought about.

The round robin games at provincial level in hurling, and the Super 8s in football, will necessitate teams playing on a week to week basis.

Will the GAAs disciplinary alphabet soup — CCCC, CHC, CAC, and DRA — be able, within seven days, to fully process a ‘Championship appeal’?

Last weekend, the GAA refixed games within 24 hours because of the weather. Despite some disgruntlement at the late notice, teams turned up and played.

Later in the season, is the GAA prepared to be equally flexible if asked to expedite its disciplinary process?

After all, justice delayed is justice denied.

Jack Anderson is Professor of Law, University of Melbourne & an Adjunct Prof, UL.


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