AT the outset of last month, the GAA’s national match officials coordinator Donal Smyth distributed a YouTube Presentation to club football referees of the new rule changes set to be introduced when competitive action resumed.
There was a lot to take in, especially for referees with no experience of implementing the rules, and particularly when they had no ‘introductory’ opportunity through club league matches or secondary competitions where the stakes wouldn’t have been as high as they now are in championship.
The task was further complicated by the level of detail applied to some of the new rules, especially the advanced mark. For example, an advanced mark can be made upon receiving a 20-metre kick from a lateral pass just outside the 45 metre-line.
A slight change has also been made in the advanced mark, in that if it is taken inside the small or large rectangle, and the player claims the mark, he goes back out to the 13-metre line. But if he decides to play on he can be tackled immediately, whereas outside the large rectangle he has four steps without being tackled.
That’s a lot for a referee to compute in such a short space of time, especially when the sequence of play could be chaotic with so many bodies involved in the action.
Even Kieran Donaghy, who is more likely to benefit from the advanced mark than most forwards, has admitted how difficult it is for referees to implement. He saw as much first hand when Austin Stacks recently played Dingle.
“I like the rule, but I think the fact that the kick must be outside the ‘45’ and it must be over 20 metres is a hard one for the officials,” said Donaghy.
“It happened a few times in the game last week, and I felt sorry for the ref because even I was going for the ball and not knowing if it was kicked outside the ‘45’, or was it just inside.”
The situation with new rules has been further complicated by the hiatus over the last four months, where referees haven’t had their normal volume of seminars or opportunities to discuss refereeing case studies.
The lack of games has also reduced refereeing interaction, where referees can use each other as a sounding board to debate certain incidents surrounding the new rules.
Donaghy spoke of a recent challenge game and his discussion with a high-profile referee. “I was peppering him with questions, and even he was kind of saying ‘Jeez, there’s so many of them Kieran, it’s hard,’” said Donaghy. “He admitted that it was hard, and in my eyes, he’s probably the best down here (in Kerry).”
Getting up to speed is going to be a huge challenge for referees in more ways than just trying to adjust, adapt and implement new rules. Fitness is a huge element for referees in the modern game, especially at elite club level, but a lack of games has made it harder for referees to be match fit, both physically and mentally.
“Refereeing is like playing, it comes with practise and game sharpness,” says Rory Hickey, a respected inter-county referee who retired last year. “I’ve often come back from two weeks holidays and made a hash of a club league game because I’ve been out of practise. And now referees have had no games and they’re being thrown straight into championship.”
Watching a host of matches over the last two weekends on the various streaming services in different counties, it was clear that some referees are rusty, which is fully understandable given their lack of officiating time beforehand.
The culture of tolerance with referees, especially around their decision-making, has never been good enough within the GAA.
But the pressure on officials has been increased further with the condensing and redrafting of some county championships, which has reduced the volume of second chances for many teams.
“In some counties, especially after the first match, every game is like a county final now,” says Hickey. “Referees are going to be under huge pressure. They’re going to be under massive pressure in football when a wrong call over a new rule in a one-point game could cause chaos.” It could be argued that referees have reached a saturation point now in how much they can absorb in football. Any sequence of play could involve a multitude of split-second decisions and calls required in such a short timeframe that they’d confuse a Mastermind champion.
It’s easier for the referees at inter-county level to get through that workload when an experienced team of seven assists a referee, including a fourth official, while two major venues – Croke Park and Semple Stadium – have access to Hawk-Eye.
But at club level, especially when the refereeing pool is already stretched to beyond capacity, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to bring clarity to a role which carries a host of new responsibilities; in total, a referee has to consider 109 different rules, ranging from rules of play to scores to technical fouls to dissent.
Referees have at least been given some increased assistance through the fourth official, who now has extra powers. In the past, the linesman could call the referee’s attention to an aggressive foul that occurred off the ball, but that function has now been extended to the fourth official as well.
However, that doesn’t really affect club games because independent sideline officials are really only present in a stadium or at a county final or semi-final.
With football championships still in the early phases, football referees are a long way from that stage yet. And they’ve a massive volume of work to get through on their own in the meantime.