Worrying slip in standards of hurling officials

Summer is almost upon us but forgive me if I’m not of a sunny disposition. The standard of hurling refereeing is slipping and I fear it could have a major bearing on what we see in the coming weeks.

Worrying slip in standards of hurling officials

Summer is almost upon us but forgive me if I’m not of a sunny disposition. The standard of hurling refereeing is slipping and I fear it could have a major bearing on what we see in the coming weeks.

It’s not because I’ve gone or that Barry Kelly, James McGrath and Diarmuid Kirwan are no longer there: it’s because the talent coming through is not strong enough, not at county or provincial level, which is worrying.

In terms of the panel available, Croke Park has to put its hands up.

Players are training three or four times a week whereas referees are meeting up once every three weeks. It doesn’t make sense.

There simply has to be more meetings, more mentoring and more analysis if officiating is to catch up with how the game is moving.

If there were enough promising young referees, you wouldn’t see a couple of old faces returning to the Championship. If there were enough, Alan Kelly, Cathal McAllister and Johnny Ryan mightn’t be part of the championship panel. At least not for 2019.

Alan has probably relived that awful day in the Gaelic Grounds last June (when he awarded Tipp a goal that hadn’t crossed the line) more times than he wishes to remember but neither the Munster Championship or the Leinster Championship can afford another afternoon like that.

For Cathal and Johnny, it will be difficult coming back. Cathal was initially removed from the Championship panel after his handling of the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final between Kilkenny and Tipperary.

He’s a capable referee but episodes like that live long in the memory. It’s like an inter-county footballer or hurler coming back into a panel having been dropped. They will have plenty to prove.

Refereeing top-level hurling now is different and difficult compared to five or six years ago. It was more man-to-man stuff back then whereas these days there are more rucks, you could have eight or 10 lads around a ball and the physical stuff has ramped up.

Every referee will have to be mentally right for that.

Going into last year’s Championship, I mentioned how the home and away element of the provinces would add pressure and in the tight venues like Cusack and Walsh Park the intensity will be even higher.

Referees will do well to avoid making hometown decisions. It’s games there where the crowd could go berserk about the slightest touch on one of their players where you’ll see how good a referee is.

The one that doesn’t mind taking the boos because he knows in his heart of hearts he might the right call. Fold into making a soft call and they’ll pay the price when they miss out on later appointments.

I know Croke Park will mention the seminars they stage for referees but sometimes they can be counter-productive.

You could be told something in one of those meetings that might throw your style of refereeing and that saps your confidence.

Johnny Murphy can be a fine referee but at the moment he is far too fussy and seems to be taking a lot of what he’s receiving to the field.

It’s about getting a balance right and the same goes for the less fussy referee. If they had a mentor or somebody to do video analysis with them after each game instead of waiting for the seminars it would benefit them.

The handpass is the hot topic at the moment and referees have been told to look for a definite striking action. Anything less and the player risks being whistled for it. I know people like Dónal Óg Cusack say the quick transfer is a skill but I think it has been coached poorly.

You see players doing these pre-match drills handpassing the ball to each in little squares and you wonder because there is no technique in throwing.

Interference with the helmet and head-high fouls will also be clamped down on and what players have to realise is there’s an onus on the referee to stamp it out as much as there is on them not to do it.

Looking at where the referees rank now, the likes of James Owens and Fergal Horgan are up there again. James getting the final last year after refereeing a semi-final was a turn up for the books.

If Fergal had a better semi-final he might have edged him but they should again be in the shake-up.

If there is one team that might be worried going into the Championship it’s Clare. The amount of frees they gave away during the league was huge, especially against Cork. Seánie McMahon is in their backroom team and I’m a bit surprised with a former referee there that they haven’t been more tuned in.

Another thing I’ll be looking out for is the interactions between the managers and the referees. From doing challenge games recently, I know managers are getting very animated.

Maybe it’s the pressure of holding the position down, but referees have to be very vigilant with what is being said to them.

Davy Fitzgerald was reported after Wexford’s Division 1 quarter-final loss to Galway but Davy’s problem is he might say something at the wrong time during the game or directly after the final whistle whereas Liam Sheedy or Brian Cody will say it at a quieter time.

Managers won’t mind telling you when you have done wrong but I guess it’s when you say it.

Ten or 20 years ago, you wouldn’t know who was reffing but now everything is looked at and players will approach games differently depending on who carries the whistle.

But it works both ways — a referee might change his approach knowing the two teams that are playing. If there’s a rivalry between the teams a different tact is sometimes called for.

I hope we don’t see a flashpoint like Austin Gleeson’s goal-line catch last year. Sooner or later, for the sake of 20 or 30 seconds, there will have to be a video referee advising the main referee.

It need not be for every questionable moment, just for possible sendings-off or situations like Gleeson’s.

Waterford were very unlucky that time and that simply can’t happen again for the sake of the competition. I don’t see too much of it happening in the football Championship because the officiating is of a better standard.

I watched a lot of Division 3 games this year and the performances of referees were solid. The mark did make a difference and with the likes of Tyrone opening up it’s become a lot easier to take charge of games. I’d like to see the sin-bin stay too.

As a general aside, I have a bad feeling the GAA is going down a dangerous road where the fun element is going out of the game and it’s win at all costs. I’d love to see managers and players enjoy it more.

Everyone is looking forward so much to the provincial hurling Championships that I just hope it doesn’t fall flat on its face. Referees will have their part to play but I hope, as part of the union, it’s for the right reasons.

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