In the lead up to both games in this year’s All-Ireland senior hurling final between defending champions, Kilkenny and Galway referees came under the spotlight much more than in previous years.
That focus drew particularly strong comments from Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody. The view from some quarters that Kilkenny had a nasty side to their game did not rest well with Cody nor, it must be said, with any Kilkenny supporter.
It would appear that some pundits are probably browned-off with Kilkenny’s long reign of success. That in turn clouds their appreciation of the county’s achievements and particularly its playing style.
In appointing Barry Kelly to referee the first game the GAA was playing a safe hand as Kelly is regarded as the top referee in the game at the moment.
Readers may be interested to know the process which the GAA adopts when it comes to appointing referees for All-Ireland finals.
The three-person appointments committee (which handles all national referee appointments) makes the choice, but (for the finals only) the views of the GAA President and GAA Director General are sought before appointment is announced.
The appointment may not always be straight forward and can generate some debate among the selection group but I suspect there was no argument on this occasion.
Got the nod
Kelly, with his vast experience, got the nod over some refereeing colleagues who may have felt their turn had arrived.
The selection of James McGrath to referee the replay may not have been as straight forward (that is an assumption on my part). Granted the Westmeath man had already refereed both the League final and the Leinster final this year, so he was clearly high up on the list of potential appointees.
Perhaps the GAA took some risk in appointing McGrath, if only for the fact that Barry Kelly’s performance in the drawn encounter received wide praise. The easy option would have been to reappoint Kelly.
It must be unique to have two referees from the same county handling senior All-Ireland hurling finals in the same year. Both performed excellently over the two days.
Of course some errors were made, but in the heat of any major contest the referee who can go through 70 plus minutes without making a mistake or two has yet to be born.
McGrath probably had the easier task in that Kilkenny was the dominant side for much of the replay as the result was decided long before the finish. It was a much different scenario three weeks earlier.
Readers may also be wondering if the two Westmeath officials received any specific instructions from Croke Park officials prior to the two games.
I don’t know if they did, but I can only relate to my own experience (and I have no reason to believe anything has changed).
Six senior finals (three from each code) were played during my time as GAA President and on each occasion the referees concerned received no instructions from anyone and were left alone to referee the games to the best of their ability.
Every month referees attend a meeting where performances are analysed (particularly by themselves), with the purpose of delivering more consistent interpretation of the playing rules.
Specialists who can advise referees on the appropriate psychological approach to adopt with both players and officials are occasionally invited to these meetings.
Despite all the training undertaken by inter-county referees, it can ultimately come down to the mental strength of an individual as to how he handles a game and particularly one where the exchanges are intense all the way to the finish.
Inter-county managers have a clear responsibility for the coaching and management of their players plus supporting and defending them when necessary.
It naturally follows then that Croke Park must have a similar responsibility for inter-county referees and their performances. Refereeing at the top level is hugely demanding, both mentally and physically, on any individual with almost every performance now scrutinised by media and supporters in forensic detail.
Hurling could do with more top class inter-county referees at the moment. It continues to amaze me why Kilkenny match officials are not making an impression on the senior inter-county scene.
I started this article by commenting on the view that some pundits have of Kilkenny’s hurling style. It has been less than complimentary on occasions.
That style, though, is very simple. It is primarily built around an awesome work ethic from a supremely talented bunch of players. This has been the mantra of Kilkenny hurling for well over a decade and the reason why that period has been so rewarding.
Some people confuse physicality with dirty play, but any proper analysis of Kilkenny hurling over that decade will show that the inability of opponents to match Kilkenny’s work ethic and hurling skills has been their downfall.
I know that some Kilkenny players have stepped over the line on occasions and were rightly punished for their misdemeanours. Such punishment was accepted and the team moved on to the next challenge.
It is therefore ironic that at the end of another championship year two of Kilkenny’s star men, T.J. Reid and Michael Rice, will play no part in their club’s current championship campaign.
Both were the victims of appalling ill-discipline in which the perpetrators went unpunished for the reckless use of the hurley. Neither of the two players in question was booked.
I accept that neither player went out intentionally to cause the Kilkenny opponent a serious injury, but in the heat of a contest unsavoury incidents sometimes occur which have no place in Gaelic games. When they happen someone must be held responsible and duly punished for their misdemeanour.
I accept also that referees can sometimes miss such incidents, but where were the linesmen and umpires?
I read last week that the Cork player Pa Cronin is being charged with an offence committed during the Cork versus Galway semi-final in August.
I cannot recall the particular incident so it must have been innocuous compared to the blows which both Reid and Rice suffered seeing that we are not hearing stories of anyone being injured.
The saddest aspect of all this is that very few pundits (bar a few notable exceptions) thought it worthwhile to condemn either of the two incidents (and the Rice incident in particular).
It is simply not good enough to talk about hurling being a man’s game and whatever happens on the field being left there.
The two incidents involving Rice and Reid were very serious and we are once again left wondering how the GAA can punish the aggressors if such incidents are not handled properly by the match officials.
Ballyhale Shamrocks and Carrickshock can ill afford the loss of these two talented players and their absence could well have a big bearing on the outcome of this year’s Kilkenny senior club championship.
I hope the two incidents involving Michael Rice and T.J. Reid are never repeated. I know only too well that players will get injured playing what is a physical and competitive sport, but these two incidents left me very concerned.
Irrespective of what colour jersey a player is wearing, anyone showing a callous disregard for an opponent must suffer the consequences of his actions. If match officials fail to pick up such incidents then the GAA must use every means possible to deal with the perpetrators.