On the first Sunday in September, 31 men will take to the pitch in Croke Park to entertain us in the All-Ireland senior hurling final.
30 of them - the players - will do everything in their power to take home the Liam MacCarthy cup, sometimes straying outside the rules. The one other man, the referee, will do his best to the see that players observe the rules and ensure fair play prevails.
But why do players comfortably observe some rules and then regularly break others?
On September 6th teams from Kilkenny and Galway will turn up to participate in the biggest day of the year in hurling. Everyone, including the players, management, referees, linesmen, umpires and spectators, is looking forward to the day and all its trappings.
Both counties are advised well in advance of the day’s pre-match and half time protocols. Procedure is clearly laid down and the Clár an Lae is to be diligently adhered to by all concerned.
The GAA officials have the order of the day off to a tee, rules and regulations are plain and unambiguous. The teams will turn up at the allotted time, go to their allocated dressing room and prepare for the game.
Then, precisely at the appointed time of 3.00pm and 3.02pm the respective teams will run on to the pitch, one to the Canal End and the other to the Hill 16 end - the pitch at both ends will be populated with numerous cones and slalom poles. The players will go to the bench provided to have their team photographs taken.
They will then carry out their warm-up exercises, practice their shooting and get last minute instructions from management. At 3.05pm the referee and his officials will come on to the pitch and at 3.10pm the referee will call the captains together to toss a coin and have more photographs taken. The captains will shake hands with each other and with the match officials.
At 3.18pm the players will line up in front of the Hogan Stand to be introduced to Uachtarán Michael D Higgins and Uachtarán CLG Aogán O’Fearghail, they will then go along the line for the Respect handshake with their opposition and match officials. All going well so far, nobody is disobeying or challenging the procedure.
The maor camán will set up their hurleys on the sideline, the maor uisce will make sure the bottles are full and the maor foirne will get ready to carry out the instructions of the bainisteoir. The substitutes will sit in their high backed seats in the Hogan stand and the medical teams will ensure they have their magic sponges to the ready.
The two teams, led by their respective captains, will line up in numerical order behind the Artane Boys Band and at 3.22pm head off on a parade around Croke Park to the delight of all supporters.
Near the end of the parade one team, on a show of defiance or for some other harebrained reason, will break off early and run towards their end of the pitch for a last minute huddle.
The other team will stay with the band until the end and then they will also gather together at their side of the pitch for their huddle. Nothing very much wrong so far except for the team breaking ranks too soon, no rule for that in the rule book so no rule broken.
At 3.28pm both teams will line up and face the Tricolour flying near the Big Screen and we will have the National Anthem played to respectful silence until the second last line. Le gunna scréach faoi lámhach…. when the crowd, unable to contain their excitement, will drown out the band by letting out an almighty roar exhorting their teams to glory.
The bainisteoirs will shake hands and wish each other the best of luck. All pre-match rituals and rules will be free from contravention, no need for yellow or red cards.
However, at 3.30pm all that respectful adherence to compliance and rules utterly changes, the ball is in and the game is on and somehow the players think that they can suddenly begin to flout the regulations.
Up to now no player or management has broken any rules, nevertheless within a minute or two of the game the first foul is committed. Over the next seventy or so minutes anything between eighteen and twenty five fouls or rule infringements will be committed.
Who has committed these fouls? Why have they committed these fouls? Do the players not know they were fouls?
It is the responsibility of the players and management to ensure that the match is played within the rules just as it was for them to obey the pre-match rules. However, this is not reality, players will just not play within the rules all of the time and that is why we need referees.
The referee will probably know more about the rules than anyone else and he is not even playing! Why is this so? Surely those who are actually playing should know best and always abide by the rules of the game.
In fact there would be no need for a referee at all if the players adhered to the rules at all times. A referee is responsible for presiding over the game from a neutral point of view and making on-the-fly decisions to enforce the rules and to prevent a player gaining an advantage from breaking them.
This is at the heart of the problem concerning referees and their critics. Referees are regularly castigated for implementing rules and penalising players for not playing within the rules. Referees don’t commit fouls - players do.
James Owens will be refereeing his first All-Ireland senior hurling final this year. It is a great honour for him and his family and we wish James and his officials all the best.
To help him get through the day we have come up with a ten Dos and Don’ts he might like to consider.
1. Do enjoy the day - try to smile if you can.
2. Don’t let the crowd influence your decision making, especially when you hear them shouting steps, steps, steps.
3. Do cut out sledging and ungentlemanly conduct by players and management as soon as you first see or hear it.
4. Don’t be afraid to take the hard decision early on in the match if warranted.
5. Don’t take abuse or insults from anyone - let them know there is only one referee and you are it.
6. Do get used to counting five seconds - it’s longer than you think.
7. Do take your time if you are not sure - it is not the speed of the decision that counts but the correctness of the decision.
8. Do consult with your officials - correct them and stand corrected if needs be.
9. Do remember you cannot please all of the people all of the time, only half of them some of the time.
10. Don’t pay attention to the post match pundits - they only call it after seeing the action replay.
Referees are simply there to do their best to ensure fair play and equity during the game, however, who ensures fair play and equity for them after the game?
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