LAST weekend’s belated commencement of the Allianz Hurling League saw the introduction of new rules relating to the denial of goalscoring opportunities and advantage.
The lack of an experimental period meant that players were going in cold and it was the same for the match officials who had to correctly implement the new regulations. Cork referee Colm Lyons was the man in charge of the clash between Limerick and Tipperary at the LIT Gaelic Grounds and he was glad to be back on the whistle.
While there was no chance to acclimatise with the new rules in a practical sense, referees did look at situations from past games and adjudicate on whether a sin-binning would accrue. Incidentally, there was no directive from Croke Park on targeting certain teams or players, as reported elsewhere. Ultimately, it’s a case of learning on the job.
“Some refs had to opportunity to do A-versus-B games, which is grand,” he says, “but, when you are out of action for six months and you have new rules coming in, it’s only until you go out there that you can properly experience them.
“The big one wasn’t the denying of a goalscoring opportunity, it was more to do with the advantage rule. Essentially, what we’ve been told is that the advantage to the player is the free rather than letting play continue.
“Teams have probably had in-house games, but it’ll take a while for everybody to get used to them. What I would say is that the players adapted very well to the implementation of the rules at the weekend and there was very little dissent, referees were explaining to players what the new rule was.”
Officiating in a Covid world has meant some noticeable changes for the referees.
“Travelling to matches has been strange,” Lyons says.
“You’re going on your own to league and championship matches, usually you’d have the four umpires and you’re chatting about the match or doing your team-talk.
“Now all of that is being done in the week before – you’d normally do that anyway, but you’d fine-tune things in the car. Now, you’re arriving up and socially-distancing, the umpires are in one room and the ref and the other match officials are in another room.
"With crowds not being there as well, there’s a very different atmosphere.”
Getting up to speed in a physical sense wasn’t a major problem for Lyons and the rest of the elite panel, though.
“We’ve a fitness coach, Aidan Brady, who’s based in DCU,” he says.
“He gave us a programme around Christmastime to prepare for the leagues when we thought they were starting in February, so we had a pre-season in January and February and then another one from the last week in March onwards, with our fitness text on April 28.
“In fairness to Aidan, our levels are the same as what they would be in previous years, but match-sharpness is different, like a player’s first touch it comes back with practice.
Things will hopefully be back to normal before too long, though one might wonder if the lack of supporters, and the things they might say, is an advantage of sorts for referees?
“You can’t beat a full house with that big-game atmosphere,” Lyons says.
“That game on Saturday, if it had been a league match in February on a Saturday night, there could have been 15 or 20 thousand at it, with the All-Ireland champions involved.
“You definitely miss that atmosphere – the umpires do, the players do, the excitement of the response to a fantastic block or a heavy shoulder or a save or a goal.
“You still appreciate the skill levels that are there but everybody is looking forward to having the crowds back, even if that brings its own difficulties and challenges for referees with crowd reaction!
“I definitely miss that buzz of a game, driving into a place that’s packed with colour. You’re still doing exactly the same preparations during the week.”