Referees ‘going in cold’ and with new rules to contend with
‘You’re going in with zilch done, no in-house matches, no challenge matches, nothing’
Fergal Horgan last reffed a match on December 13th - the All-Ireland hurling final. File photograph: Inpho
Things you never think of. When Seán Stack throws in the sliotar in Cusack Park in Mullingar at two o’clock this afternoon, it will be the first time in 22 weeks that any referee in the country has so much as put a whistle to his lips. At least during the 2020 lockdown – which was a fortnight shorter, in official gameplay terms – there was a bit of a run-in and a chance to make their mistakes on the challenge-match scene. There’s been none of that this time around.
In the rush to get everything back up and running for the 2021 league, there wasn’t a lot of heed given to the men in the middle of it all. Perfectly understandable, of course – referees, as much as anybody, wanted the games back as quickly as possible. All the same, they go into the campaign each carrying an element of apprehension as to how it might all play out.
“Absolutely,” says Tipperary’s Fergal Horgan, last year’s All-Ireland final referee. “We’re going in cold. There’s going to be teething problems and it’s going to take some getting used to on all sides. It’s very unusual for us to be going into the league with no matches under our belt but that’s the hands we’ve been dealt with Covid. It is what it is and we’ll just get on with it. The public and the players and the media are just going to have to get on with it too.
“Usually at the start of the league, I’d have three Fitzgibbon matches, two Harty matches, at least three or four challenge matches and maybe an in-house game or two with the Tipp seniors as well. So I would be touching 10-to-a-dozen matches before the league starts every year. That’s a good 700 minutes of hurling that you’re going without. You’re going in with zilch done, no in-house matches, no challenge matches, nothing.”
Although they haven’t been able to do their usual collective training, fitness won’t be an issue. Under the regime of Aidan Brady from DCU, they’ve been through an eight-week block of training, culminating in fitness tests at the college last Wednesday week. You had to pass it to make the league panel, no Covid allowances made.
But physical fitness is only half a loaf. Refereeing a sport that moves as quickly as hurling is a survival exercise at the best of times. You can only make decisions on the basis of what you see – but the more games you do, the better you can anticipate what’s likely to occur, the bigger chance you can give yourself.
Horgan reffed the All-Ireland final on December 13th. The same day, Liam Gordon handled the Joe McDonagh final. Otherwise, there hasn’t been a hurling match requiring a referee to lace his boots since November. Six months is a long time to go without doing anything, especially when the reception is likely to be pretty unforgiving when you don’t do it right.
“If you asked the best hurlers in the country,” says Horgan, “to go out and play a game on Sunday without having held a hurley in their hands in the previous six months, would they make the county team? Probably not. That’s how we are going into this league – we haven’t had a whistle in our mouths for six months. I know it’s different playing a game and refereeing a game but at the level we’re operating at, it’s a big disadvantage.
“Match practice is the only tool you have as a referee. Hurlers have a lot of avenues they can go down to keep their eye in and their touch good. They won’t be 100 per cent without some match practice but if their fitness is good and if they do the work on their hurling skills, they will be able to get by.
“But for a referee, it’s a completely different scenario. What makes a referee good is his sharpness, plain and simple. Fitness isn’t an issue, it’s purely sharpness that determines how good a referee you are. The more games you do, the sharper you are. And the only way to get sharp is to do the matches. So I imagine it will take two or three games for referees to get to where they want to be as regards mental sharpness and the pace of the game.”
If it was only the lack of gametime they were facing, that would be something. But of course, there’s more to it than that this time around. The off-season has seen a number of rules changes come into the game, all of which are in play starting today. There is no trial run. This is the trial run.
Chief among them is the newly-minted rule around cynical play. For years, hurling has resisted the idea of a sin-bin and has breezily accepted players getting dragged to the ground when they’re through for a goal as being all part of the game. So not only will referees have to deal with being a little rusty, they’re going to have to negotiate the introduction of an unpopular rule into the bargain. Best of luck, lads.
“Referees are judged on the decisions we make. I don’t expect us to get a break from too many people. It will take a number of games to get up to speed. But at the same time, you must remember it will take the managers a few games to get up to speed as well. Nobody, and I mean nobody, has seen this in operation.”
There will not, confusingly, be a black card. A drag-down, trip or reckless use of the hurley inside the 20-metre line or semi-circle that denies a goalscoring opportunity will result in a penalty and a 10-minute trip to the sin-bin. A black card did come up in discussions but they chose not to go with it. As Horgan points out, if a player is walking to the stand, you’ll have a fair idea he is heading to the bin.
“It’s a new challenge,” he says. “I wasn’t 100 per cent in favour of the rule personally at the start. But now that it’s in, I see the logic that they’re trying to put behind it. Will there be more goalscoring opportunities? I think so. We had a lot of cynical stuff last year in fairness, compared to other years’ championships. So anything that will improve the game as a spectacle and look after the more skilful player, you’d get in behind it.
“I thought last year was an extraordinary year. You couldn’t deny that there was a lot of cynical play. You couldn’t deny that fact. But I just wonder was it the time of the year? The ball wasn’t travelling as far or as quickly as it would be in the summer because of the air temperature and the ground conditions. Even on a good day in December, it’s nothing like a hot day in July. So I don’t know, making a rule on the back of that, was it needed?
“I have nothing scientific to back that up. That’s just my thinking. This year will tell us where we are. We’ll be playing a league in good summer weather. We’ll have a championship in the best of it. I think we’re going to have one of the best hurling seasons we ever had. Then there’ll be a special congress at the end of the year to decide whether we’ll keep the rule in or not. So by September, we’ll know a lot more about whether it was a mistake or not.”
All in all – and despite it all – he can’t wait to get going. None of them can. Intercounty referees are at this long enough to know that certain truths are self-evident. There’ll be a lot of fine talk about how the ref has a hard job to do but the leeway only lasts until the call goes against you. It’s all well and good to preach patience with the new rule – they acid test is how you handle is going against you. Twas ever thus.
“Absolutely, I’m looking forward to it,” Horgan says. “It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. You only miss something when it’s gone. There were times in 2019 when I was saying to friends of mine, ‘I don’t know if this is worth it’. But now that I was off last year for six months and this year for six months, I’m delighted to get back on the road.
“It’s going to be a learning curve for the players too. They’re going to be on the ground and the referee will be pointing to the penalty spot and telling them they’re going off for 10 minutes. It will be all new to them as well. But by the time the championship comes around, players, managers, referees and media will all know where we stand.”
Rules changes for 2021
1 An aggressive foul denying a goalscoring opportunity in football and hurling will result in a penalty and a sin-bin. The fouls in hurling are (i) pulling down an opponent, (ii) tripping, (iii) careless use of the hurley. The fouls in football are the existing cynical behaviour fouls (drag-down, trip, body-check).
For a sin-bin to happen, the foul must occur anywhere inside the 20-metre line or the 10-metre arc. A foul inside the large parallellogram can be deemed a penalty but not a sin-bin if the referee judges the foul not to have been cynical. The sin-bin will last for 10 minutes. Time will be stopped during water breaks and won’t count towards the sin-bin period.
2 The advantage rule has changed in hurling and football. Referees will now blow for frees unless the player with the advantage either has a goalscoring opportunity or is in clear space. This has been changed essentially because players weren’t getting full value for their advantage and were finding themselves being tackled or surrounded by opponents within the five seconds allowed. Referees will now call this back for the original free more often than had been the case.
3 Temporary substitutions for head-injury assessments can now be made. Only a referee can decide - if a team medic or official wants to bring a player off for a HIA, they must inform the referee of the fact.
4 It is now against the rules to wave your arms or jump around or shout at a free-taker or a goalkeeper taking a kick-out or a puck-out. The ball will be moved up 13 metres any time it happens.