Martin Breheny: Common sense must trump rules
Every hurling clash will finish five-a-side if refs slavishly stick to letter of the law
Ask referees why common sense is not their closest friend next to the whistle and you will get the stock answer. "Show me where common sense is mentioned in the rule book?"
You can't, of course, and the argument that rules are actually a formalised version of common sense will be dismissed as pandering to populism. You are also likely to be reminded that common sense isn't nearly as common as it might appear.
Referees will also tell you that they dislike sending players off, which is presumably true.
In that case, Westmeath referee James McGrath must be cursing the bad luck which has afflicted him in two of his last four championship games where flailing miscreants prompted him to issue straight red cards.
He dismissed Cyril Donnellan in the second half of last year's All-Ireland hurling final replay at a time when Galway were trailing Kilkenny by just four points. That left Galway with a handicap which they weren't going to overcome.
McGrath waved Patrick Horgan from the Munster final just before half-time last Sunday, leaving Cork with a load which was always going to prove too heavy against Limerick.
A referee is quite within his rights to claim that it's his job to apply the rules and the players' responsibility to play within them. When they don't, they effectively sanction themselves, with the referee the mere facilitator of law and order.
Right? Actually, no. Horgan was sent off after his hurley flicked off Paudie O'Brien's helmet under a dropping ball.
The sun was in both players' eyes and Horgan was coming in from behind O'Brien, but the referee brooked no mitigating circumstances and immediately dismissed the Cork full-forward. It was a judgment call at the harshest possible end of the scale, which may well have been the turning point in Cork's season.
A week earlier in Croke Park, Tipperary referee Johnny Ryan let David Burke (Galway) off with a yellow card for jabbing his hurley into Dublin forward Danny Sutcliffe seconds after play had stopped. Where's the consistency between those decisions?
Presumably, no referee will send off a player unless he is totally convinced that the offence merits it, but surely it's incumbent on him to use all the evidence at his disposal.
All-Ireland referees Brian Gavin and Barry Kelly were the linesmen at the Munster final, so why didn't McGrath consult with one of them prior to making such a crucial call?
The rules allow it, stating that referees can "consult with the umpires and/or linesmen concerning infringements of the playing rules, in particular, rough or dangerous play, striking or kicking".
And since it could have been done in a matter of seconds, there was a clear logic in double-checking.
You might even call it common sense, surely a welcome commodity in a situation where so much was at stake. It would be still McGrath's decision, only now he would be using added information.
Instead, he called it on his own and dismissed Horgan, whose departure stacked the odds against Cork.
In the strictest interpretation of the rule ("to strike or to attempt to strike an opponent with a hurley, with minimal force"), McGrath made the correct call.
However, if that rule were applied consistently, games would end up as five-a-sides since, inevitably, players get hit quite often in the course of totally legitimate action – there is no allowance in the rules for an accidental strike.
Now, if the law is such an ass, the only antidote to its madness is common sense. So when it comes to a referee having the slightest doubt about whether a player deserves a red card, he should consult one, or more, of his co-officials.
Perhaps McGrath was clear about the sanction required against Horgan last Sunday, in which case he was wrong under the common sense heading.
The game was being played in an honest manner and Horgan is a sporting player. And, even if he weren't, it's unlikely that he would attempt skulduggery under a dropping ball right in front of the referee.
The texture of the game up to then demanded that, at the very least, the referee checked for a second opinion.
Instead, Horgan was dismissed and suddenly the challenge facing Cork became much more daunting. Cork are battling to have the red card rescinded but will find it difficult under the strict wording of a badly constructed rule.
In that case, Cork (and Horgan) would be doubly hit for, in addition to the impact of his absence in the second half last Sunday, he would also miss the season-defining game with Kilkenny on Sunday week.
Still, given that common sense didn't feature last Sunday, surely the disciplinary bodies will give it the break it deserves.
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