Wednesday 13 December 2017

Dermot Crowe: Referees have to stand firm over striking

Michael Duignan deserves kudos for speaking his mind

Referee Brian Gavin, right, issues a red card to Liam Rushe, Wexford.
Referee Brian Gavin, right, issues a red card to Liam Rushe, Wexford.

Dermot Crowe

WITHIN seconds of starting the Dublin v Wexford Leinster hurling championship replay at Parnell Park eight days ago, Brian Gavin, the match referee, began heading towards a flashpoint.

Ciarán Kenny pulled one-handed, a lazy, insolent stroke, which coaxed the first card out of Gavin's pocket, a yellow. The incident sparked a mini melee. Sometimes you can gauge the nastiness of a stroke by the reaction of the players in the vicinity – the Dublin hurlers were visibly agitated. But the referee is the final arbiter and Kenny's yellow seemed sufficient, serving as a warning to all to behave.

This was the fourth instalment of Dublin and Wexford this year. In recent seasons Dublin have overtaken Wexford in the provincial charts and a degree of over-familiarity and hostility has developed between them. The tension present on Saturday week last is a by-product of that rivalry. Wexford were keen to leave some impression that they are no longer satisfied playing second fiddle.

Only six minutes passed when Gavin showed a red card to Andrew Shore for striking down on the head of Ryan O'Dwyer. There were at least three other incidents of Wexford hurlers striking Dublin heads, two under dropping balls, and one, an off-the-ball jab which was seen by a linesman, reported to Gavin which drew a yellow card. Moments before that Conal Keaney caught a ball in his left hand and received a swipe of a Wexford hurl through the faceguard which led to stitching at half-time. The ref took no action; play continued.

Earlier in the half the Wexford captain Gareth Sinnott pulled down on Peter Kelly, who was out in front for a high ball. The referee chose yellow when it was a red-card offence. Referees in the past have been reluctant to send players off because of the impact those decisions can have on games and they have been especially reluctant to send players off early in games. Gavin cannot be accused of the latter failing. Shore's loss ultimately cost Wexford and they paid dearly for their discipline but referees should not feel there is an acceptable limit or quota when it comes to dismissals.

That following night Michael Duignan raised the issue of striking to the head, a cowardly and mean act which breaks a fundamental code of honour among hurlers. Cathal Parlon was blessed to escape in Offaly's match against Kilkenny, when he pulled dangerously on TJ Reid under a dropping ball. He should have got the line. It might have ruined the game as a contest – Offaly needed every man they had – but that would not have been the referee's case to answer. It should not be seen as a moral dilemma.

Predictably, Duignan has received criticism for his comments. What he had to say was not all one-sided – a dangerous jab of a broken hurl by Conor McCormack attracted Duignan's attention and rebuke and should have seen him dismissed. There were also claims that a Dublin player had punched a Wexford player on the ground during one of the skirmishes. But Duignan felt Wexford were the bigger culprits and spoke of what he saw with his own eyes. He was specifically talking about wild pulling under a high ball and the serious risk of injury it creates. Ger Loughnane also raised this issue after the Offaly v Kilkenny game and was unequivocal in condemning it.

As if anticipating reaction to his comments, Duignan prefaced his analysis by saying two things – he liked hard hurling and he had no agenda against Wexford. Still, he was dismissed as a moan and a man with a prejudice.

There are two issues arising. One is whether Duignan's observations had merit or were those of a crank seeking some headline attention. He is free of guilt; his observations stand up to scrutiny. Much of the reaction criticising him is parochial, as is usually the case. People find it nigh impossible to look objectively on their own team. The second issue concerns hurling refereeing in general. There has been a soft approach to dangerous play and rampant cynical fouling over the last five years. A notable exception was Barry Kelly's handling of the drawn All-Ireland final last year, in spite of a hotly-disputed late free award to Joe Canning.

GAA officials have indicated they are paying closer attention to hurling refereeing this year. They would be helped greatly if an advantage rule was introduced to deter the holding and obstruction that is a plague and unfairly penalising the player in possession, the honest broker. The advantage rule is coming in Gaelic football. It cannot come fast enough in hurling yet there is a pompous notion out there that hurling needs no reform.

In the meantime, well done to Michael Duignan for speaking his mind when the easier route would have been to say nothing.

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