Nickey Brennan: Maybe referee Rolland’s approach might be worth following

RECENTLY I perused the RTE Aertel service (out of curiosity) to check if the results of the All-Ireland intermediate and junior hurling semi-finals were listed. I already knew the outcome of both.

RECENTLY I perused the RTE Aertel service (out of curiosity) to check if the results of the All-Ireland intermediate and junior hurling semi-finals were listed. I already knew the outcome of both.

On the previous day I attended a meeting in Croke Park with county PRO and IT Officers where criticism was voiced at the tardiness in updating the Aertel results service. It was not a surprise, therefore, to find the results of the two hurling games missing.

At the same time as I was perusing the service, mayhem was reigning in O’Moore Park at the junior club football All-Ireland semi-final. For well over a week now the airwaves and print media have gone into overdrive following the scenes from Portlaoise.

If only the RTE Aertel service received the same attention!

Not so long ago we depended on a graphical description of unsavoury incidents at games from people in attendance and the media. Nowadays anyone with a Smart Phone can capture an incident and have it uploaded on YouTube before they leave the ground.

Well in excess of 100,000 people have already seen the shenanigans from O’Moore Park on YouTube, and almost every national radio and TV presenter has used their programme to air an opinion, including the presenter’s own view.

The vast majority of those same presenters have little or no interest in the GAA. Sure, they have been to Croke Park, but usually as a guest of a music promoter to attend a concert. The best forensics would not be able to detect GAA DNA in their veins.

Let me say at the outset that the incident in Portlaoise was very serious and a dreadful blight on the GAA. It was inevitable and indeed understandable that it would receive major coverage in every media outlet.

But there was an amount of “jumping on the bandwagon” also. This is not a case of shooting the messenger. The media are fully entitled and, in fact, obliged to tell the story as it was, but the input from a few commentators was devoid of balance.

When one takes into account the number of games played annually, the number of serious incidents at GAA games is small. Any incident, though, is one too many and events such as those in Portlaoise must be condemned outright.

Comparisons with other sports are inevitable and rugby is regularly proffered as an example of a sport with a strong disciplinary ethic. We have seen raw physical exchanges by opposing players in rugby which can be every bit as contentious as those in a GAA game.

The difference, though, is that once the referee identifies the transgressors punishment is meted out and not challenged by the players. Perhaps more importantly the remaining players get the message and more often than not the rest of the game is played without incident.

Referee meetings

During my time as GAA President I made a habit of attending monthly meetings of inter-county referees. At most meetings a guest speaker was invited to address the gathering.

One such guest speaker was Allain Rolland, the international rugby referee. This was some time prior to his appointment to referee the Rugby World Cup final, but it was already clear at that stage that he was destined for the ultimate accolade in refereeing.

The comparisons between Rolland’s training regime and those of the GAA inter-county referee were interesting. He has a full-time job and would often don his track suit at lunch time and jog around the streets of Dublin close to his place of work.

Training continued later in the evening followed by a game at the weekend which might involve considerable travel. On that score Rolland had a lot in common with GAA referees.

But it was how Rolland and his refereeing colleagues dealt with matters during games that was most revealing. Before every game he would speak to both team captains and outline what he expected from the teams.

Both sides took to the pitch in no doubt about the parameters within which they would be expected to play. Failure to adhere to the expressed wishes of the referee would ultimately lead to either a temporary or a permanent dismissal from the game.

Such refereeing decisions are not confined to matters of physical misbehaviour, but also to persistent infringing of the rules. However, unpalatable a decision may appear to be to dismiss a player, the notion of proffering a protest must never be contemplated.

One just has to think back to the recent rugby World Cup finals in New Zealand where Rolland dismissed the Welsh player and team captain Sam Warburton in the 18th minute of their semi-final against France.

In hindsight, that decision probably decided the result of the game (France won by a single point), but it was a brave call by the Irish official in such a crucial game. The Welsh player infringed a rule of the game and Rolland made the tough call.

Such a crucial decision may not have been made by all his rugby refereeing colleagues.

From the moment I heard Rolland speak in Athlone, I saw a man supremely confident in both his technical ability and his assertiveness. A lack of assertiveness is often where some inter-county GAA referees and their fellow match colleagues run into difficulties.

Ironically, I heard no criticism of the match officials who operated in Portlaoise being voiced in any quarter. Once the fracas developed in front of the stand there was little the officials could do until the mayhem died down.

Stern action

Perhaps once order was restored some stern action should have been taken by the referee, but it is unfair to make a comment when one was not at the game.

What we can be sure of is that the referee did not speak to both captains before the game. This may not be the “done thing” in the GAA, but maybe it is time it was introduced.

By outlining what he expects from both teams to the opposing captains, the referee is clearly asserting his position.

The investigation into what transpired in Portlaoise is currently underway and the clubs are likely to be severely punished. Both teams were guilty of serious misbehaviour, but the consequences of their stupidity will be more severely felt in Tyrone than in Kerry given their qualification for the All-Ireland Ffnal.

Too many mentors on the sideline (from both teams) and the scaling of the pitch perimeter fence contributed significantly to the seriousness of the fracas. If the matter had been left to the players, I suspect that the referee would have taken appropriate action.

Whatever punishment is handed down must reflect the seriousness of what transpired and it must also act as a genuine deterrent to every team that takes to the field this year.

Wrong was perpetrated on both sides and its best that we now leave it to GAA authorities to decide which players were culpable.

Towards the end of last week another spark was lit when officials from the Killarney club, Dr Crokes, requested segregation from the Crossmaglen supporters at the upcoming All-Ireland senior club semi-final.

Not helpful

Ironically, that game is also scheduled for Portlaoise. The request, coming in the wake of the junior club semi-final fracas, was not helpful. It will do no favours whatsoever for the Kerry and Munster champions in their attempt to defeat the kingpins of the club football championship.

It brought an unnecessary focus on the behaviour of both sets of supporters in advance of the game. Worse still, it prompted some to question the relationship between clubs North and South.

I know many people from abroad who attended major games in Croke Park and they commented very favourably on the excellent behaviour of opposing fans who sit in close proximity to each other. It is a GAA tradition which must be retained.

Not for the first time, a major fracas in January hits the headlines and the GAA is once again faced with defending its approach to discipline.

Over the past year or so the ’Association has rolled out a respect initiative aimed at young players. Maybe it is now time for a similar initiative to be aimed at adult players and team mentors.