Saturday 24 February 2018

Citing and sin bins, what the GAA can learn from rugby's discipline

Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin argues with linesman Ciarán Branagan during a match against Carlow which resulted in a 12-week ban. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin argues with linesman Ciarán Branagan during a match against Carlow which resulted in a 12-week ban. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Jack Anderson

The GAA disciplinary system is once again in the dock. The latest saga is helmetgate, involving Waterford's Tadhg de Búrca and Austin Gleeson. Earlier in the year controversy surrounded the 12-week ban imposed on Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly for an incident with a linesman in a game against Carlow. There was also much dissatisfaction with the process surrounding an on/off 48-week ban on Antrim's Matthew Fitzpatrick for an alleged incident during an Allianz League clash with Armagh in March.

A disciplinary system, like a good referee, should largely go unnoticed. It should be firm, fair and facilitate the safe playing of the game. That is the wish of those working within the current GAA system, but to prevent it frequently becoming the story of the season, some tweaks are needed.

The first issue is the complicated appeals structure. The cynical view is that if a player stays in the system long enough a loophole will emerge which they can exploit. A Disputes Resolution Authority (DRA) decision involving Diarmuid Connolly in 2015 encouraged this view, even though the loophole was quickly closed and no player has since had a decision overturned at the DRA.

The original idea of the DRA was that it would prevent disgruntled players from seeking court injunctions to override playing suspensions. It has worked in this regard and the volunteers on its panels have saved the GAA considerable legal fees.

An unintended effect of the DRA, however, is that it puts into question the role of, and need for, the GAA's own internal appeal body, the Central Appeals Committee (CAC). The scope of review of both the DRA and CAC is similar. They could be merged into one standing tribunal. This tribunal would provide a quicker, singular route of appeal and yet retain its independence.

The second tweak in the system relates again to its convoluted nature.

The Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) is the GAA's prosecutor. It suggests a sanction against the player which he can accept - the clear majority do - or request a personal hearing at the Central Hearings Committee (CHC). The CHC is the equivalent of the District Court. If the player loses at the CHC, they can appeal to the CAC, or High Court in GAA terms, and then on to the DRA, the Supreme Court.

The quirk in the system is that as the player traverses it, the various committees join the case so that by the time it gets to the DRA, the full alphabet soup (CCCC, CHC and CAC) has congealed against the accused.

A District or High Court judge does not need to appear in the Supreme Court to justify their decision. The current GAA system, whereby the various committees must on the one hand review each other's decisions but on appeal can join forces, is conflicted.

A more transparent system would be for the CCCC alone to make and justify the case against the player through the various stages. In this, a full-time GAA disciplinary officer in charge of the CCCC would be worthy of consideration.

The third issue relates to the fact that the CCCC is the most important disciplinary body in the GAA. In the present system, they are largely bound by the referee's report and the rules surrounding clarification of that report. The CCCC should be given citing power like those in rugby.

In other sports, citing powers based on a retrospective review of the video act as a deterrent against player ill-discipline. More importantly, it helps referees.

One of the most dispiriting elements of the Gleeson incident with Cork's Luke Meade was the subsequent pressure on the referee, James Owens. The semantics of being asked as to whether he was 'happy' with his officiating of that game was embarrassing and unfair on him. Moreover, if unchanged, it will place other referees in a similarly invidious position.

In the GAA, many of the offences which are appealed are those at the lower end but which are in a category where a red card leads to an automatic one-game ban. The championships have a short, knock-out format and four to six games can win you an All-Ireland. An automatic one-match ban can rule you out for up to quarter of that season. In the Premier League that would equate to an eight-match ban.

Malicious, dangerous play can never be excused, but for less serious offences is it not time to consider a sin bin in the GAA, in conjunction with a close-in free against the infracting team? This would ensure that impetuous acts by players could be dealt with on the day and the disproportionate effect of a game ban, and the inevitable appeals, avoided.

Arguably, the Conor Gleeson sending off late in the game last Sunday is a prime example of the use of a sin bin where, as a result of a niggly provocation, he reacts with what the rule book calls 'minimal force' and likely misses the most important game of his life.

Finally, disaffection with disciplinary bodies occurs in many sports. In Australia, the AFL, whose system is like the GAA's but run by professionals, is criticised weekly for inconsistent decisions, offset by the fact that it can at least fine its players.

Moreover, exploiting loopholes, rescinding red cards and going to great lengths to get a player reinstated is not an exclusively GAA pursuit. New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams was banned for four matches arising out of an incident in the second Lions Test. The All Blacks staged an in-house training game and successfully claimed that it sufficed as one of the four matches.

The Lions have, since 2005, brought legal representation on tour. That advice enabled Ireland's Sean O'Brien to overcome a citation and play brilliantly in the deciding Test.

The Scarlets' Steff Williams played in this year's Guinness PRO12 final against Munster having got a red card rescinded for what appeared to be a dangerous tackle in the semi-final against Leinster.

In sum, other sports have learned, as the GAA has over the last few days, that sport is now fiercely competitive and adversarial on and off the field.

Jack Anderson is a Professor and Director of Sports Law Studies at the University of Melbourne. He is a former secretary of the DRA.

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