Willie Barrett calls for no rush to judgment over application of new playing rules

‘Any time a new rule is announced in hurling or football there’s a furore for a while at the start’ says ex-chair of referees’ body

For the second week running the GAA’s league programme has been dominated by criticisms of rule changes from managers and pundits.

Willie Barrett, who has just wrapped up his term as chair of the Referees Development Committee and who proposed the motion to penalise cynical play by both a penalty and 10 minutes in the sin bin, says the fuss was predictable.

“Any time a new rule is announced in hurling or football there’s a furore for a while at the start. Think back to a few years ago when the black card was introduced. We’re not talking about this anymore. After the first few weeks everybody got used to the application of it.

“We need to settle down in the hurling and see how the next couple of weeks go. Nobody should rush to judgment and make rash decisions on the rules as they stand.

“The black card has all but eliminated for instance the body collide. You hardly ever see that now but it took time for the rules to be fully embraced.”

Whereas a week ago the focus centred on the new advantage rule, this time around there was unhappiness at the measures introduced to combat cynical fouling, which resulted in two penalties for Dublin against Roscommon.

Roscommon manager Anthony Cunningham was scathing about the rule after his team's nine-point defeat.

“I can’t give out about the referee but I can give out about the guys who made that rule. I don’t think it was needed in the game. I think the rules committee are trigger-happy to be changing the rules every year. I don’t think there was a need in the game.

“It was harsh as well. The rule is if you have no players back but I definitely think we did in two instances.”

The rule only refers to “a goalscoring opportunity” but in advice to referees from Croke Park the number of defenders ‘between the attacking player and the goals’ is recommended as one of the things that a referee should consider.

Barrett acknowledges it can be a more difficult calculation for a referee in football as opposed to hurling but says that referees have handled the issue well.

“It’s probably easier for hurling referees to decide whether it’s a goalscoring opportunity or not. In football a guy can be going through and decide at the last moment to punch it over the bar. That’s not the concern of the referee, who has to decide was it a goalscoring opportunity.

Major concerns

“In hurling it’s different because a player can score from 30 or 40 metres. In football it would take a great shot to beat players from 21 metres. At times it can be challenging to identify a goalscoring opportunity but watching the games, I believe that the referees’ strike rate is high.”

Focusing on what constitutes an opportunity overlooks the fact that it is the cynical fouling of a player with an attacking chance that triggers the award. If players remain within the rules the sanction won’t apply.

In Galway, Limerick manager John Kiely accused the association of having changed the rules when no-one was looking.

“I think it’s a worry for the game, as much as it is a worry for us. I think having seen two games now that I’d have major concerns as to where we are at in this now . . . it does appear that the game has changed in the last four months whilst we’ve all been at home, and somebody has decided to take the tackle out of the game. I’d love to know who they were and when that was decided . . .”

This reflects concerns that the tweaking of the advantage rule has encouraged referees to award frees more quickly. There has been no change to the tackle rule but a reconsideration of how to treat fouls has led to a ‘safety first’ approach of giving the free.

“I think it’s challenging for referees and will take a couple of outings before they get used to it,” according to Barrett. “When four players are attacking or crowding a guy that’s straightforward – you award the free but when he’s attacking down the centre of the field and a quick ball in and there’s a goal chance on, making that judgment will take time.

“But from watching it on television I’d be happy with referees’ application of it and the progress they’ve made to date.

“As well as that if you look at the rule and the way it was worded, if it’s on for a player to break through he can do so. I think you will see referees and players getting used to that scenario. It hasn’t radically changed the advantage rule.

“If a guy is coming out and is surrounded by four or five players tackling him. At times he was being penalised for over-holding the ball when in actual fact there wasn’t a clear advantage. Okay the first fella comes in and then a few more and suddenly the player is surrounded – give the free. That was the scenario envisaged.”

Does it lead to greater numbers of frees in matches and create a stop-start disruption?

“There may be but in fairness to the referees they have to penalise foul play as well and can’t operate advantage to the detriment of fairness in the game.”

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times