'You cannot award a free when the ball is out of play,' insists Bannon
Referees' committee turn to Croke Park to help clear up mess after controversial Ulster tie
AN unusual refereeing decision in Omagh last Sunday has prompted the GAA's National Referees' Committee to seek a rule clarification from Croke Park after the first big weekend of the championship.
It is anticipated that the new black card rule will cause problems this summer and Meath referee David Coldrick was first in the firing line in Ulster's big derby between Tyrone and Down. He came in for criticism for not black-carding Down's Conor Maginn for a tackle that yielded a penalty and not playing enough 'advantage' in last Sunday's thrilling draw.
But the game didn't just throw the spotlight on football's relatively new rules.
Coldrick is one of the most respected referees in Gaelic football but his final decision, to cancel a sideline kick for Tyrone and replace it with a free much closer to goal for an off-the-ball foul on Sean Cavanagh, had many prominent experts scratching their heads yesterday and reaching for their rule-books.
Referees chief Pat McEnaney admitted last night that they are "seeking clarification" on the decision.
"There is nothing in the rulebook that covers that situation," he said.
"There's nothing in the rules that says you cannot award a free in that instance but we are seeking clarification on it from the Standing Committee on Playing Rules," he explained.
One top former referee said the consensus among referees and officials that he spoke to yesterday was that Coldrick was wrong to cancel the line-ball and award a free infield which Cavanagh so brilliantly slotted to earn Tyrone's reprieve.
"I consulted quite a few rules experts about it and there was consensus among them that it was wrong," said ex-All-Ireland referee John Bannon.
"Once the ball went over the sideline it was out of play and we (referees) have always been governed by the principle that you cannot award a free when the ball is out of play.
"My understanding was that if there was a subsequent incident before the ball went back into play, that you had disciplinary tools that you could use, like ticking a player or giving him a card, but that it would not affect the sideline kick. Anyone I spoke to believed the same."
Coldrick also raised eyebrows earlier by bringing forward a Tyrone '45' after Down's Conor Laverty encroached on the ball.
Bannon said he had never once brought forward a '45' in his own long refereeing career and would probably not have done so.
"My interpretation would be that the player is challenging the authority of the referee, which is punishable under the disciplinary rules, but that the '45' would not be affected or moved," he said.
But he admitted that his discussions with other rules experts yesterday unearthed a wide interpretation of the rule, with some arguing that a '45' was, technically, a free, and therefore could be moved forward.
McEnaney put an end to that debate by clarifying that Coldrick's decision was correct.
"You can move a '45' forward for dissent," he said.
Interfering with the taking of the free can be interpreted as dissent.
Another unusual incident occurred in Sunday's game between Longford and Offaly when Offaly's David O'Hanlon got a yellow card initially which the referee, after consulting with his linesman, upgraded to a red.
There has been speculation that this change, after the initial yellow, could provide O'Hanlon with good grounds for appeal, but Bannon believes Martin Higgins' decision will stand up to scrutiny.
"The player should have got a red card and eventually that's what happened so the referee got it right," he said.
"If play had begun before the card was changed that might be different but, in this instance, he consulted with his linesman and changed his decision before play resumed."
Tyrone and Down will do battle again in an all-ticket replay in Newry on Saturday (6.30), which will be preceded by the Ulster minor quarter-final between Tyrone and Monaghan (4.45).