Blowing the whistle on hurling’s ref crisis

The echoes you heard resounding through the last seven days? Those were from the whistles at NHL Division 1A games last weekend.
Blowing the whistle on hurling’s ref crisis
REF JUSTICE: Luke Meade, right, and Jack O’Connor appeal to the linesman official during Cork’s recent Allianz HL Division 1 win over Westmeath at TEG Cusack Park. Officials have come under heavy scrutiny in recent weeks. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
REF JUSTICE: Luke Meade, right, and Jack O’Connor appeal to the linesman official during Cork’s recent Allianz HL Division 1 win over Westmeath at TEG Cusack Park. Officials have come under heavy scrutiny in recent weeks. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

THE echoes you heard resounding through the last seven days? Those were from the whistles at NHL Division 1A games last weekend.

If you need reminding — last Saturday John Murphy of Limerick refereed the Dublin-Wexford game in Croke Park, issuing 13 yellow cards and three reds. Murphy also awarded 50 frees in the course of the game.

On Sunday, Sean Cleere of Kilkenny was in charge of Limerick-Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and while he didn’t send any players off, he awarded 40 frees or so.

This had a direct impact on the result of the game — Patrick Horgan of Cork ended the game with 0-15 from frees, closely followed by Limerick’s Aaron Gillane, who finished with 0-11 from frees.

Cue the hand-wringing — about hurling being ruined, about poor standards of officiating, about ruining the perfection of the game, etc, with last weekend’s refereeing displays responsible for all of the above and more.

Clearly they’re not, but the focus on last weekend’s games and referees has helped to crystallise some of the issues around hurling and how it’s officiated.

Specifics first. There was a good deal of sympathy for Murphy and Cleere this week within the refereeing community. For one thing, the two games were broadcast live on television, and though they weren’t played on the same day, they created a continuous narrative — the Murphy-Cleere show, a double feature of over-fussy officiating.

Running in parallel with this quickly-kindling firestorm was the ongoing discussion about the possibility of a black card in hurling, with the debate slanting towards the apocalyptic if last weekend was anything to go by, etc, etc.

We’ll return to the black card. First, the vagaries of TV scheduling had a good deal to do with the flare of controversy all week. If the live game on Sunday’s TG4 broadcast had been Waterford-Galway instead, it’s likely the outcry would have been a good deal more muted.

In that game, James Owens of Wexford was far less finicky, handling a game that was competitive and tight while also allowing the players to express themselves fully — giving an ideal refereeing performance, in other words.

Yet Owens’s off-Broadway display wasn’t taken as evidence that refereeing is in a good place.

The media focus on referees, however, and in particular the slow-motion dissection of incidents in games on TV, is also the source of some unhappiness within Croke Park.

That unhappiness is partly driven by what officials see as an unfair focus on individual events and plays — and a failure to take into account the real-time angle of vision a referee may have in comparison with TV cameras and endless replays.

(The all-time line on this phenomenon was delivered by PJ McGrath, the referee in the 1982 All-Ireland final won by Offaly’s Seamus Darby with that late goal. Years afterwards, McGrath was approached by a man who said he’d spent hours, days, weeks watching the reply and was now convinced McGrath made the right call. “Thanks,” said McGrath. “You had 20 years. I had three seconds to make that call.”)

This is augmented by what officials feel is a lack of understanding being shown by pundits and managers alike with the shallowness of the pool of officials available to the GAA.

In recent years the game has lost Brian Gavin, Diarmuid Kirwan, Barry Kelly, Johnny Ryan and James McGrath from its senior intercounty pool of hurling referees. That amounts to over one third of the panel of referees available for the most the demanding hurling games of the season — a considerable loss of expertise.

The loss is all the greater as these are, by definition, the most experienced referees — the officials with the nous and familiarity necessary to allow a game to breathe, skills which are built up over several seasons. Newer referees need those several seasons to reach a similar level of experience, and if any group can sympathise it would surely be intercounty managers trying to introduce new players.

GAA officials have also pointed out quietly what they see as the catch-22 which faces hurling referees — to blow for everything and face criticism, as happened to Murphy and Cleere this week, or to adopt a laissez-faire attitude to rucks and handpasses and face criticism for not penalising throws and loose-hand tackling.

This distinction is also an interesting way to cut out some of the noise surrounding the black-card debate in hurling.

A black card in Gaelic football is an aid in eradicating cynical play which arises, at least in part, from the compression of play and the lack of space resulting from modern tactics.

However, at least a player being pulled down or body-checked is relatively clear to the naked eye. In hurling the lack of space isn’t just a matter of tactics but is often due to the creation of rucks as several players battle for possession.

It’s often not clear at all whether a foul is actually being committed when a player in possession is surrounded by several opponents. Furthermore, if a referee decides to penalise players for what he sees as offences committed in a ruck early on in a game, that’s not a deterrent to rucks later in the proceedings. The game now involves so many such rucks that referees have had to accommodate rather than eradicate them.

Whether some teams seek to create rucks because it suits their players is another discussion, one that maybe needs some finessing of what we mean by cynicism in hurling. On that score, John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer’s midweek intervention — that there has been cynicism in the game since 1884 — was welcome, as otherwise the rapture would surely be upon us. The alternative would be stating that the sport is the only human endeavour free of cynicism, a bold claim even for its biggest fans.

Regarding our starting point — last weekend — the distinction has to be made between referees who have an off-day, and the ongoing issues in officiating the game — the game as it is, not how it might exist, or how it existed in the past.

It’s worth noting, for instance, that last year’s championship ended with the officiating in three games provoking varying levels of discontent from competing counties.

In the first All-Ireland semi-final, Galway’s Alan Kelly was the focus of Limerick anger when he didn’t give the incumbent champions a late ’65 which would have given them the chance to equalise.

The day after that game, Tipperary weren’t happy with Sean Cleere’s disallowing of three goals, including one written off and play being called back in order to award a Wexford point.

In the final itself, Kilkenny were angered by the first-half dismissal of Richie Hogan by James Owens. The eagle-eyed will notice Owens was the focus of ire in the biggest game of last year, while he gave probably the best refereeing display of last weekend.

Then again, if your eyesight is that good, maybe you should consider refereeing yourself.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up