Martin Breheny: Refs' cartel bad for hurling
Why are rules on handpassing and over-carrying being ignored by small band of top officials?
Any day now, you can expect Brian Gavin to be named as referee for the All-Ireland hurling final. How do we know? Precedent points strongly in the direction of the Offaly man being appointed to the big job.
One of the two referees from the quarter-finals usually gets the final, in which case it will be Gavin or Alan Kelly (Galway).
Since Kelly has never refereed a semi-final or final, the odds are that Gavin will be appointed to take charge of a Kilkenny-Tipperary final for a third time, having previously officiated in 2011 and 2014 (replay).
He is one of the most prominent referees on the circuit, together with Barry Kelly (Westmeath), James McGrath (Westmeath) and James Owens (Wexford).
Indeed, the Leinster men are quite a fourball, enjoying a dominance of the major action to a degree that requires scrutiny.
If Gavin is appointed for the final, it will be the 35th time that one of the 'Big Four' will have officiated in 46 All-Ireland finals, semi-finals, quarter-finals, Leinster and Munster finals over six seasons.
As of now, Gavin leads on 12, followed by Kelly (10), McGrath (seven) and Owens (six).
The only other referees to feature on that list are Cathal McAllister (Cork) on four, Johnny Ryan (Tipperary) on three, Alan Kelly (Galway), Fergal Horgan (Tipperary) and Michael Wadding (Waterford) all on one each.
Wadding and McAllister are no longer on the championship list. With the top four taking charge of more than three-quarters of the big games, their influence on hurling is enormous.
In my view, it's also damaging because a common culture now appears to dominate, one where the overriding ambition is to keep the game flowing at all costs.
And if that involves ignoring fouls, so be it. Referees know that they are more likely to be criticised for being whistle-happy than whistle-shy, but when - and from whom - did they get the authority to ignore fouls?
It starts with the throw-in, at which point all players except two from either side are supposed to be behind the 65-metre lines. That never happens anymore.
Instead, anything up to 12 others encroach close to the midfield four, often arriving just as the ball is being thrown in. Okay, it may not look important but who authorised referees to ignore the rule?
Did they agree among themselves that it's so difficult to police that the best option is to disregard it altogether? And if they can ignore one rule, why not another? And another? Referees are quite correct in trying to keep the action running as much as possible, which has been greatly helped by the introduction of the advantage rule.
However, referees are not entitled to go beyond that but it seems to me that they are now vying with each other to acquire a reputation as top of the class for 'letting it flow', even when fouls are being committed.
And that's before we come to over-carrying and illegal handpassing. In Kelly's opinion, only two players over-carried in the Galway-Tipperary game last Sunday. Is he serious?
Look back on the video and start counting. So why weren't they penalised?
The same goes for the Kilkenny-Waterford game the evening before, where one of the most blatant examples featured Kilkenny goalkeeper Eoin Murphy after his spectacular catch denied Waterford an equalising point from Pauric Mahony's free late on.
Murphy took at least seven steps with ball in hand before getting in his clearance but McGrath's whistle remained silent.
Kilkenny would have been outraged if Murphy had been penalised because it was by no means the only time that over-carrying went unpunished.
It would have been a very controversial call to whistle Murphy back for what would have been a match-tying free but, under the rules, it should have happened.
Kilkenny weren't best pleased with McGrath earlier on, especially when he saw fit to penalise Liam Blanchfield for shouldering Jamie Barron over the sideline.
A similar jolt by Pádraic Maher on Joe Canning the following day was deemed fair by Kelly. He was right but how can two top referees vary on something as basic as that?
And then there's the handpass. The rule calls for a "definite striking action of the hand" but referees appear to have scrubbed that requirement, instead allowing blatant throws.
They will make occasional interventions, which merely serve to highlight the many others which go unpunished.
Throwing has become increasingly prevalent in recent years and since only four referees officiate at most of the big games, much of the responsibility for allowing that to happen rests with them. Are they never queried on it by the Croke Park authorities?
Ultimately, they are responsible for ensuring that rules are applied as written, rather than at the whim of referees.
Why are four referees, all from Leinster, deemed so superior to the rest that they get 75pc of the big games over six seasons? It's not very encouraging for other referees when they see what amounts to a virtual monopoly dominating the high-profile market.
Gavin, Kelly, McGrath and Owens have acquired a status which now appears to be self-perpetuating, even if the reality isn't nearly as convincing as the reputations.
Also isn't it curious how long some top hurling counties have gone without having a senior All-Ireland referee.
Galway haven't had one since 1964 with others as follows: Clare 1973; Kilkenny '84; Limerick '03; Dublin '04; Tipperary '05. Antrim have never had one. All very odd.