Diarmuid Connolly found himself – not for the first time – at the nexus between problems for the Dublin footballers and the GAA's disciplinary system.
A current All Star, and generally tagged as the most gifted or one of the most gifted footballers of his generation, the St Vincent’s player has also been involved in a number of high-profile disciplinary controversies.
Saturday was the latest, with the broadcast images of his pushing at linesman Ciaran Branagan creating a stir over the weekend and drawing a proposed 12-week suspension from the GAA's Central Competition Control Committee.
It is also generally noted – even publicly by opponents – that he is easily provoked and therefore his recidivism isn’t terribly surprising, even if his success rate in challenging high-profile suspension before the ample range of tribunals provided by the GAA has been impressive.
It wasn’t necessary for him to be found liable for a three-month suspension to understand that Dublin have problems on the field.
Performances this year have been lacklustre, and the laborious win over Carlow left a trail of blood in the water for more highly rated opponents rather than what has become the traditional response to the county's first outing in Leinster – anguished cries about the disparity in standards and calls for graded championships.
It is accepted that Jim Gavin has tried to vary preparations for this season's pursuit of an All-Ireland three-in-a-row with a view to peaking closer to August. How successful that turns out to be won't be known until then but, unless there's an improvement in performance, the Leinster championship looks likely to be more of a litmus test than has been the recent experience.
No doubt, missing Connolly up until an All-Ireland semi-final would complicate things, but right now it’s just one of a number of issues that need to be addressed.
The question that arises from the incident is why punishing breaches of rule is such a high-wire act within the GAA – why an air of drama and uncertainty inevitably hovers over what should be routine matters. The public are generally baffled as to why dealing with incidents like Connolly’s that are broadcast live for everyone to see appears to be such a struggle.
Even in this case Dublin will be entitled to ask why if the infraction – minor physical interference with a match official – was noted in the referee’s report, it wasn’t dealt with at the time with the appropriate sanction, a red card.
The fact that it was mentioned in Seán Hurson’s report made the task of dealing with the case easier; otherwise there would have been the need to seek “clarification” from the referee as to whether by not taking action he was “adjudicating” the matter, hadn’t noticed what had happened or was simply wishing it would go away.
This has echoes of the situation a decade ago when referees were asked whether they were happy with decisions taken – mostly in relation to leniently administered yellow cards for red-card infractions – and if not, the authorities were free to revisit the incidents.
This was far from satisfactory. Demanding that referees confess the error of their ways or worse, having them compound the problem by refusing to review their decisions, didn’t serve anyone’s interests apart from those breaking the rules.
Refereeing is a difficult job. There have been suggestions that the games could do with more than one in order to keep track of ever-faster play. With the best will, officials won’t notice everything. Having their match decisions on foul play open to review isn’t a mark of dishonour – in rugby a citing commissioner can act on incidents whether dealt with by the referee or not – but a safeguard.
Former All-Ireland referee and chair of the National Referees Committee Pat McEnaney has said that he has no problem with such interventions if match officials have made mistakes. If the error in enforcing the rules adversely affects a player, he can challenge the decision, so it makes no sense if a mistake that unfairly benefits him can't be reviewed.
It would also stiffen referees’ resolve, as they would know that diffident decision-making on their part wouldn’t be the end of the matter. A citing protocol should be reintroduced to ensure that foul play is adequately discouraged regardless of whether it was noticed or inadequately addressed.
Allowing the CCCC to go after clear breaches of rule regardless of what the referee decided in the course of the match would actually reduce pressure on the officials, as there would be no point in their making excessively lenient decisions were video evidence simply to ensure the appropriate punishment was imposed.
This would also create greater consistency in handing down suspensions.
It should be acknowledged that the association’s structures for dealing with disciplinary issues are working well.
The foundation of the Disputes Resolution Authority (DRA) in 2005 imposed greater rigour on the GAA. Liam Keane, who established the authority as its first secretary, has made himself consistently available to chair the Croke Park committees dealing with discipline, and is currently chair of the Central Hearings Committee. His successor at the DRA, Matt Shaw chairs the Central Appeals Committee.
There is very little in the way of successful appeals, as the procedures are far tighter than previously.
So far so good, but the central theme of a functioning disciplinary system – how effectively does it uphold its rules by punishing infractions – can still be more effectively upheld.