Saturday 25 March 2017

Time to halt square ball farce

Forget technology, Congress could have avoided Royals row by scrapping outdated rule

Déjà vu all over again: Kildare benefit from the marginal square ball call against Graham Geraghty on Sunday
Déjà vu all over again: Kildare benefit from the marginal square ball call against Graham Geraghty on Sunday
But they were on the receiving end of another controversial call when Benny Coulter scored his goal for Down in last year's semi-final
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Sometime in the future, Pat McEnaney may recall the moment when he realised the decision to allow Benny Coulter's goal to stand in last year's All-Ireland semi-final between Down and Kildare may have been the wrong one.

Coulter had squeezed between Kildare defender Emmet Bolton and goalkeeper Shane McCormack to punch home Martin Clarke's delivery when Down were feeling the heat after a blistering opening from the team in white. The suspicion of square ball was a strong one, but McEnaney consulted with his umpires who seemed satisfied that the goal should stand.

As he made his way back to the middle of the park, McEnaney caught a glimpse of the large screen at the Hill 16 end replaying the incident.

Croke Park is normally quick to block replays of contentious moments for obvious reasons, but this one clearly slipped by the censors.

McEnaney couldn't be certain but that awful feeling came over him that a big decision had gone wrong. No referee likes that, not least the most experienced in the game.

The weight of the decision changed the game and McEnaney has since acknowledged it was the wrong call. But it begs the obvious question: if a referee can realise within seconds of a decision that a decision was wrong by looking at a screen installed for the fans, then why can't the same replay become an official reference point somewhere in the stand?

The pros and cons of consulting technology have been made vociferously over the last few seasons as the catalogue of poor decisions on scores and square balls grows larger.

In the wake of that Coulter goal, in the wake of last year's Leinster final, in the wake of all the points that have flown either side of posts up and down the country, ultimately, the debate has always focused on the same aspect. Is the introduction of technology possible and does it offer a better way than allowing human error to balance itself out as it appeared to do last Sunday?

Kildare were on the receiving end from a wrong call last year, Meath benefited from a wrong call. All's well that ends well then, it seems.

But the logic of that argument just doesn't stack up any more. Everyone, players and referees especially, deserve the best devices available to them to make the games as fair as possible.

Most of the top referees are in favour of technology being deployed to detect scores. Why wouldn't they be, when it makes their job that little bit easier?

Detection

But should technology not extend to activities around the square, too, where detection of a square ball, given the triangulation factor of determining the flight of the ball, the position of the player and the alignment of both to the white line, must all be assessed in the same split-second viewing?

From a position high in the stand it is easier to make a judgment on this. At ground level, in such proximity to the point of contact, not so. An umpire or referee who can accurately make an assessment of this triangulation of factors should drop a line to the 'Krypton Factor'.

The rule regarding the square ball is somewhat ambiguous anyway. Does a player have to be in the square in his "totality" before the ball has arrived or is part of his body sufficient to deem it illegal? It doesn't clearly specify. In International Rules "totality" applies.

In the case of Graham Geraghty's "goal" on Sunday, it was almost impossible for anyone to determine because Joe Sheridan's delivery, most likely a point attempt, was hit with a low trajectory and arrived much quicker than a ball that hangs in the air.

Last week, the GAA and Hawk-Eye moved their talks to the next level to determine if the technology supplied by the English-based company -- and perhaps more pertinently, the cost of supplying the same technology to all venues to determine scores -- was acceptable. Early suggestions are that the cost of this may be prohibitive but that shouldn't prevent further exploration.

The cost of adding extra cameras to all venues may not be as taxing and perhaps the training of video referees to assist with scores and square balls -- essentially matters of geometry -- may be a road worth exploring if Hawk-Eye doesn't materialise.

But there is a better option than deploying technology to determine if a player is in the square or not.

Scrap the rule altogether.

It's not needed as it once was.

In that sense, Syl Doyle is not to blame for last Sunday's disallowed goal and neither are his brother or his son. And what difference does it make if the referee is related to his umpires?

They made a decision on a marginal call that looks, with the benefit of hindsight, that it may have just been wrong.

The assessors in the stands -- who seem to have caught the ire of just about everybody who feels uncomfortable at dishing out criticism directly to referees -- are not to blame either.

The blame lies on the 300-plus delegates who sleepwalked through Congress in Newcastle last year when playing rules on the agenda were treated as if they were an irritant to a good weekend. Among them was a decision to abolish the square ball, a rule designed to protect goalkeepers from the traditional "run and charge" that was a feature of the game in the middle of the last century.

But no real thought was given to this by legislators charged with much more responsibility than they ever realise.

It was one of the experiments that had worked well during the 2010 league and there was scarcely a referee who would have lamented its passing. Under the terms of that experiment, opposing players couldn't occupy the square for frees or sidelines coming in but in general play it was "access all areas". There were no controversies. Goalkeepers got on with it.

But for all the experiments over the years, even the smallest of housekeeping changes to the playing rules are slow to come. In 21 years since the free was permitted from the hands, change has been minimal, the kick-out tee, the kick-out uniformly from the 13-metre line, the handpass and the penalty from 11 metres are the totality of it.

Uefa president Michel Platini said last week that goal-line technology wasn't needed because it was only required every 40 years. For the GAA it is much more relevant. The square ball and all its anomalies remain. And so too will the needless controversy.

Irish Independent

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