Hawk-Eye worth persevering with but not so sure about Limerick’s objection

The GAA is trying to improve quality of scoring adjudication but should mistakes invalidate match outcomes?

There was thinly disguised irritation on the part of senior GAA officials over the score detection fiasco during Sunday’s All-Ireland minor hurling semi-final.

“All we have been guilty of,” said one testily, “is entering into partnership with a market leader.”

This was further underlined by the protocol that followed: a statement of error and apology released not by Croke Park but by the company responsible for Hawk-Eye.

The explanation that the difficulty caused by the system contradicting itself was a human programming error was hardly inspiring given the cost and effort of installing and trialling Hawk-Eye over the past two years.

There’s an unhelpful irony in what happened, which is that just as the GAA had apparently implemented an initiative that could do away with controversy over many scores – an inevitability in games during which men in white coats gaze into the sky to check the co-ordinates of a ball and post – it malfunctions and joins the long line of things to be viewed with suspicion by some.

There is no proposal capable of being dreamed up by man, which could create unanimity within the GAA. Last March, motion 54 to annual congress – an Up With People type declaration of anti-sectarianism and anti-racism – managed to pass by just 90 per cent, leaving 10 per cent suspicious of that sort of thing.

I remember a more distant congress when there were actually votes against email by a couple of proud, techno-sceptic Canutes.

Were Central Council to stumble upon a cure for cancer there’d be complaints: about the other item of business, that competing sports would benefit even more than Gaelic games, that it was another solo run by Croke Park suits and what about other illnesses – “heart disease is more of a problem where I come from” – etc.

So it was with Hawk-Eye. Not everyone thought it was a good idea to introduce a system potentially – it’s currently on a two-year trial in Croke Park – capable of clearing up an area of contention within the games but enough did for the idea to get the go-ahead.

Until Sunday it had been going well. The referrals have added an element of theatre to the matches and if the outcome has usually been no great surprise, the authority of high-tech determination creates an enhanced sense of certainty.

There is now a concern that this certainty will be replaced by a loss of confidence and trust in the system, which in turn will enrich the already fertile soil for conspiracy theories and suspicion.

Matters of contention
That would be a pity because the system itself would appear to work perfectly effectively once it's set up properly. It is to be hoped that over the remainder of the two-year trial period Hawk-Eye continues to sort out matters of contention in lower-key fashion. It is unarguably an improvement on what went before.

Where that leaves the Limerick minors is another matter. After a particularly painful afternoon for the county it is perhaps not surprising that the extra-time defeat has been turned into a cause celebre after the injustice of being stripped of a valid score by a technical error.

If however the winning "goal" in the last minute of the 2010 Leinster final was not susceptible to revision, it's hard to see how an incorrectly disallowed point in the first minute will deliver any more satisfactory an outcome for the aggrieved.

Would the intervention of malfunctioning technology change this? Again it’s difficult to see how this would happen. Part of what governs all participants in organised sport is an acceptance that incorrect decisions may on occasion go against them. It’s the natural consequence of human arbitration. The GAA have been careful to incorporate the score detection technology into the referee’s duties and the match official has to endorse the Hawk-Eye verdict by recording it in his report.

By the way, referees were explicitly told to go with the verdict box on the big screen, simply because peering at the trajectory would (ironically) carry too much risk of getting it wrong.

The rule book doesn’t offer much comfort because it explicitly states that no objection to a match result can be “submitted on grounds that a referee had incorrectly allowed or failed to allow a score”. Significantly, it doesn’t stipulate how he came to act incorrectly.

There has been an endorsement of this by the Disputes Resolution Authority in a 2005 ruling – coincidentally originating in Limerick – on a match between the Fr Casey's club and St Senan's. Aside from supporting the basic proposition that refereeing errors in respect of scores can not be used to challenge the outcome of matches, the DRA outlined the obvious exception.

This arises where “a referee is shown to have had an improper motive amounting to a corruption of his role as an impartial arbiter of fact and rule” – in other words, bad faith.

On Sunday evening Limerick manager Brian Ryan was remarkably stoical and dignified about the misfortune that had befallen his team saying of the contentious incident that cost him team that early point.

He and his county are of course perfectly entitled to pursue their objection to the weekend’s result and so his post-match comments will not be the final word on the matter. That may well go all the way to the DRA.