Sunday 17 November 2019

New policing standard can stem flow of lawlessness

Barry Kelly's performance in last Sunday's All-Ireland final should be the template for other referees to follow, says Dermot Crowe

IN the next day or two the referee for the All-Ireland senior hurling final replay will be named, a decision that has already been the subject of some media and public speculation. Contrary to a prevailing thread of opinion, there is nothing in rule to stop the appointments' committee entrusting the task to Barry Kelly. There is certainly nothing in his performance last Sunday to deter them either.

The Central Referees Appointments' Committee (CRAC) secretary Patrick Doherty said that while general policy had been to appoint a different referee for replays this is not a binding constraint. Kelly, he confirmed, was on their list of options.

On the evidence of Sunday last, they would be well advised to leave him in charge when the counties meet again in two weeks' time. If only every hurling match was refereed like last Sunday's stalemate. Even if Kelly does not get the call, it is hoped that this will be the standard for all others to follow.

Granted, he made mistakes -- and one of those, it could be argued, handed Galway an unfair shot at a draw near the end. But in the overall assessment he was probably the first referee to put manners on such a high-profile hurling match in three years or more after a period when some of those holding the whistle went a bit cowboy, to say the least.

The recent climate of permissiveness, and preoccupation with "letting it flow," had brought thrilling but unruly physical contests where the referee and the rulebook were marginalised. Instead of ruling without fear or favour, referees were to cater to the whims of the warring tribes. Driven by vested interests whose primary concern wasn't so much the betterment of the game as winning matches, this was always liable to meet an unsatisfactory and messy end. A liberal interpretation of the rule book, or a "common sense" one to use some of the euphemistic language in vogue, was destined to wreak havoc and sow small seeds of anarchy.

Not only did it begin to look like hurling was being refereed from outside the white lines, but there was a fear, too, that referees felt that this was what was expected of them from those making the appointments. Sources within those bodies in recent years vehemently denied this. But how much influence do outside elements -- players, or managements, even county administrators -- feel they are entitled to wield? We had reached the point where it was reasonble to ask who was calling the shots? If there are enough refereeing performances of the calibre of Barry Kelly's last Sunday then all of these insidious influences will become less invasive and relevant.

Kelly bucked the recent trend where referees appeared to feel it was their duty to entertain or appease rather than to police. This did not apply solely to finals and even Kelly himself was the focus of criticism, not unjustified, for lenient application of the laws in a match between Dublin and Galway earlier this year.

But on Sunday last he was exceptional and in spite of all those dire prophets of doom we still had a match to savour. There was sufficient 'flow' and it did not in any way diminish the physical nature of the contest. Lads were still sore on Monday. There was no magic formula, just a referee prepared to apply the rules as he is expected to do. Who would argue -- on the whole -- that he didn't have a magnificent match? Who would argue, more to the point, that this thorough and transparent application of the rules compromised the game's aesthetics or reduced its primal appeal?

Hurling referees have had to deal with an evolving game so perhaps they should be cut some slack. With possession now the obsession, they are confronted with a great deal more physical contact, crowding, and an upsurge in cynical fouling, with a whole new bag of tricks coming on stream, designed to dupe them. One of the more recent additions is interfering with the helmet or faceguard. Too many hurling referees of late seemed happy to trust the players' better natures but even the best and most feted hurlers will break the law if they can get away with it.

"We saw a tackle develop over the last few years that we have not seen before," says one inter-county hurling manager. "What do you do but train to tackle like that? I mean isn't that what's allowed? We would have tried to copy some of the tactics used by teams. The last three finals went down as classics and we would have all pored over those to see what was allowed go on."

Kelly reminded us that players intent on playing fair can expect protection -- on and off the ball he showed himself to be on top of those tasks. Last Sunday fouling for the most part did not pay. Did it reduce the game as a spectacle? Not at all. In the last few years various interested parties indulged in a great deal of scaremongering to suit their own agendas. We are a parochial association. Sometimes not for the better.

On the late controversial decision to give Galway the free that saved them, he deserves sympathy. It was a rapid-fire call and there are strong arguments to be made on both sides of the divide. One former All-Ireland final referee said he thought it was a foul when he saw it in real time, but had more sympathy for Jackie Tyrrell when viewing it later with the benefit of another angle.

Another referee of similar standing said it was a free, that the player used his arm and hurl to obstruct illegally. I am inclined to go with the former, but it wasn't a scandalous decision by any means and he followed his instinct. His instinct for the most part was exemplary.

Kelly is, in the words of one referee, one of the fittest referees on the circuit which gives him a marked advantage in being up with the play but he won't always be in the best position to judge and he has to make a split-second call in a highly pressurised environment. If the rule of thumb is that a referee gets the majority of the 50-50 calls right, then Kelly can be satisfied with a job well done.

"It was an exceptional performance," said the inter-county manger we spoke to. "I hope that this is the template going forward but it differed so much from the two semi-finals, that is what I'd be worried about."

That is the challenge from here; that this wasn't an isolated show of strength but the standard for all hurling referees to emulate. Whether it is Kelly himself in a fortnight's time who has that responsibility or somebody else. For now, though, he deserves all the tributes that come his way.

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