'It's not a case of being a brave decision, it's a case of being the right decision'
Application of 'common sense' policy will only lead to more inconsistency
Near the end of Cork's recent demolition of Laois in an All-Ireland first-phase hurling qualifier, Westmeath referee James McGrath penalised Laois goalkeeper Paddy Mullaney for stepping outside the small square in the midst of unleashing one of the last of his many puck-outs during the game.
Two minutes left, 31 points between the teams, nine goals already gone past him, the consensus was that McGrath was being fussy and petty in his application of the rule that governs where a puck-out must be taken from.
It was picked up on by the Irish Independent correspondent covering the match in his 'Ref Watch' notes where the act was described as "a bit fussy." But McGrath delivered the decision with the cold-hearted detachment referees are supposed to bring to these situations.
Should it matter that Mullaney's team were so far behind when he stepped outside the permitted area and let fly with a puck-out? Should it matter than there were only two minutes left? McGrath was dispensing judgment on what he saw on the field, not what he saw on his watch or on the scoreboard. Isn't that all that is ever asked of an official?
The puck-out parameters are there for a reason, just as the sideline parameters and the rules of the games are.
McGrath took away any emotional attachment he might have had at the time to a faltering team so far behind and delivered his assessment in accordance with the rules he is charged with upholding. That's the type of referee the GAA wants and the type of referee it is striving to create. If every referee applied the rule as James McGrath did last week then consistency wouldn't be the issue it is and has been.
But his actions would not necessarily align with the unwritten rule that so many followers of Gaelic games believe should over-ride every other rule -- the rule of common sense.
It is a word that frustrates referees' chiefs as they try to set a template for how games should be handled. Common sense means being influenced in decision making by mood, timing, position on the field and flow of a game. And that is where inconsistency grows fastest.
Which brings us to Cormac Reilly and his decision to award that free in the dying minutes of Sunday's Leinster football semi-final to Dublin's Bernard Brogan, who had apparently been fouled by Andriu MacLochlainn as they chased down a Barry Cahill delivery that was falling well short of them anyway.
The word 'apparently' is used because TV evidence remains inconclusive. From the vantage point of the camera behind the Hill 16 goal it's clear that MacLochlainn's legs tangle with Brogan's as they make their pursuit.
It was accidental of course but it impeded Brogan's run nonetheless. The forensics suggest, however, that Reilly had made his call even before those camera shots focused on the tangle of legs and point to something that happened before that. It appears that MacLochlainn had tugged Brogan's arm just as the pursuit began and Reilly, standing 30 metres away, had spotted it. MacLochlainn denied any foul play.
It would help Reilly's case and that of referees in general in the face of criticism if a camera from the Davin End could shed some light on what happened.
But the chairman of the national referees committee Mick Curley came out strongly in his defence yesterday and stressed that Reilly was adamant that what he saw merited a free.
"It doesn't matter whether a foul is intentional or not. If it's a foul, it's a foul and referees are always encouraged to call all fouls, regardless of when they happen or where. We have to try and reach that level of understanding and consistency," said Curley yesterday.
Curley tried to avoid the use of the word "brave" when describing the actions of a referee.
"It's not a case of being a brave decision, it's a case of being the right decision. And that's what matters most. Whether it's in the first minute of a game or the last minute of a game it's the same foul if it has occurred," he said.
But using the word 'brave' is almost unavoidable when it comes to analysing Reilly's decision to award that free.
Human nature is a powerful tool and given how finely the game was balanced, the time left and the position where the alleged offence occurred, a majority of referees would, in all probability, not have given it. Reilly blew quickly and he had a clear line of vision from a very good position 30 metres away. The easiest option for him would have been to ignore what he concluded in a split second that he had seen. He didn't shirk his instinct.
Kildare were victims of a miscarriage of justice in last year's All-Ireland semi-final when a Benny Coulter goal was allowed to stand despite a clear square-ball infringement that changed the course of the game in Down's favour.
But just because that happened should not automatically mean a roll over of sympathy credits for them either.
If it could be established beyond doubt that Reilly was right to award Dublin a free when he did it would be a huge leap forward for referees, especially after the two headline decisions made last season.
It all boils down to how the GAA fraternity wants their referees. Encourage 'common sense' and you get gross inconsistency; apply all of the rules all of the time regardless of time, history, replay revenue and eventually you'll get everyone singing off the same hymn sheet.
But that won't court popularity with the masses.