Sunday 22 September 2019

Colm Keys: 'Owens sets standard for high tackles that other refs will struggle to maintain'

Hogan's challenge on Barrett will be a reference point for years to come

Referee James Owens shows a red card to Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan in the first half of Sunday’s All-Ireland final. The official’s actions will surely set the tone for how head-high tackles are ruled on in future. Photo: Sportsfile
Referee James Owens shows a red card to Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan in the first half of Sunday’s All-Ireland final. The official’s actions will surely set the tone for how head-high tackles are ruled on in future. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

In the 2013 Munster hurling final, Cork's Patrick Horgan mistimed a challenge for a ball dropping beneath Paudie O'Brien, catching the Limerick defender around the head with his hurl.

James McGrath produced a red card in accordance with the guidelines that were laid out for referees earlier that year. Anything above the neck in hurling or football warranted instant dismissal.

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It didn't sit easy with those directly involved in the game and more than once, strong reference was made to football's influence on hurling refereeing matters. 'Hands off our game' was very much the sentiment.

Among officials, there was a sense that, maybe with the mandatory wearing of helmets, players sub-consciously felt that the helmet was sufficient protection to withstand the force of a hurl or an arm in a challenge.

With the advance in power that players could generate, the sense that the head must be protected was strong. McGrath encountered a blizzard of criticism.

Horgan was adamant there was no intent, Cork challenged and succeeded in convincing a hearings committee that the player's strike to the head was more careless than dangerous and that a yellow card was sufficient.

Some referees felt let down by the decision and strict enforcement of head-high challenges was subsequently diluted.

McGrath obviously wasn't happy that such a seismic decision was overturned, outlining the rationale behind it in a subsequent interview with the Sunday Independent.

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"The number one priority for me and any referee in the country, be it club or inter-county, is the welfare and protection of the players. I'm not there to control the personal interests of 44,000 supporters," he said.

But getting tough on head-high tackles has been revisited in recent years. Prior to last year's championship, the current chairman of the national referees' committee Willie Barrett stressed that red cards would be produced for such challenges, something he also repeated prior to last year's league.

When Tony Kelly caught Pádraic Maher on the opening night of the league as Clare and Tipperary met, referee Colm Lyons produced a red.

This time, a hearings committee backed the decision and let it stand. But such enforcement is always easier on the first day or night of the season than it is on the last.

The gold standard for such application is on All-Ireland final day. On the biggest stage, no referee wants to be the one to make the call to end a player's involvement.

After Sunday's defeat, Brian Cody suggested the delay in showing Richie Hogan a red card was due to uncertainty. But, more likely, James Owens' hesitancy was to see if there was any wriggle room out of it and to avoid reacting to his first instinct.

On 'Off The Ball' last night Richie Hogan was adamant his challenge was "honest" and that in no way could it be described as an elbow to the head.

But unlike the black card in football, there is no distinction between accidental and deliberate. If it's high and hard, it's in red card zone. Now that it has been applied on the highest stage, it sets the standard for other referees to follow.

Thus, the challenge by Bill Cooper that, ironically, caught Hogan in the All-Ireland quarter-final and left Cooper worse off, might be viewed differently now. Owens himself was referee that day.

So, too, will a couple of incidents during the Munster hurling final when Tipp's John O'Dwyer caught Diarmaid Byrnes with a hurl to the head and Ronan Maher met Peter Casey with a shoulder to the head that was late.

If the common consensus was that Hogan's red card was merited and was in line with what is expected from these type of challenges, then it sets a different landscape for the game in the years to come.

The balance between conviction in pursuit of a ball or making a tackle is always difficult to maintain in hurling because of the game's speed and the possession in one hand of a hurl.

There's a duty of care among every player but sometimes that's impossible to apply when split-second decisions are being made.

Owens set a bar at the highest level on Sunday that will be difficult for referees to measure up and will always be the game's biggest reference point in these matters.

Irish Independent

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