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Playing for a Draw

It’s September, so time for a small diversion from the technical stuff to something far more important, Hurling.

Prior to 2012 the last All-Ireland final to end in a draw was the 1959 Kilkenny Waterford final. Since 2012 all three finals have had to be replayed. This many draws in a row is wildly unusual, but that in itself isn’t evidence of funny business. Anomalies happen, that’s why we call them anomalies.

Hurlers are operating at levels of strength, skill and fitness unlike anything we have ever seen. If we assume that the top teams are reaching roughly the same heights, aren’t close games more likely? and consequently shouldn’t we see more draws?

Or is there more to it?

This year alone, Kilkenny and Tipperary ended level after normal time in the National Hurling League Final, and Kilkenny were only a point ahead after extra time. Kilkenny and Galway tied the Leinster Semi-Final, Clare and Wexford couldn’t be separated in Normal or Extra time in the Qualifiers, and their replay also went to extra time. And of course Sunday’s Epic also ended all square.

For as long as I can remember there have been suspicions that the GAA hope for draws and the revenue boost that replays provide. It’s quite possible that’s true, but it’s a leap from that to suggest that the GAA actively influence referees to blow up level games, or allow close games to run on a little longer in the hopes of the trailing team equalizing.

I’m sure referees would be extremely unhappy and would absolutely refuse to be influenced in such a way, and I don’t believe it happens.

I do however think referees are doing exactly what I described above, albeit at their own volition rather than in response to pressure. I believe they are stopping tied games as quickly as possible, but allowing close games to run on. Giving the trailing team “A chance”.

Exhibit A – All-Ireland Final – Kilkenny vs Galway – 9 September 2012
3 minutes of injury time were added, with Kilkenny leading by a point.
At 71.50 a free was given to Galway and Jackie Tyrell was booked moments after a trip on Kilkenny’s Tommy Walsh was ignored. Galway tied the score from the resulting free and the referee ended the game a second or two short of the end of injury time.

Exhibit B – All-Ireland Final – Cork vs Clare – 8 September 2013
2 minutes of injury time were added. When the two minutes have elapsed Cork are up by a point. The Referee allows play to continue for 27 seconds. Clare equalize and play is then stopped.

Exhibit C – League Final – Kilkenny vs Tipperary – 4 May 2014
3 minutes of injury time added. Kilkenny a point up when the 3 minutes have elapsed. Play is allowed to continue for 38 seconds, including a missed free to Tipperary. Tipperary equalize from play, the referee doesn’t allow the puckout. Normal time ends level.

In Extra-Time 1 minute of injury time is added. Kilkenny lead by a point when the 1 minute elapses. Referee allows the puckout, Kilkenny win the ball and the game is ended. We of course can’t know if Tipperary would have been allowed a few seconds to equalise if they had won the ball, but the pattern from other games suggests they might.

Exhibit D – Leinster Semi-Final – Kilkenny vs Galway – 22 June 2014
2 minutes of injury time added. Kilkenny score with 2 seconds of injury time remaining to lead by a point.
Play is allowed to run on for 21 seconds, Commentator makes the comment “He has to give them a chance”. Galway equalize and the game ends.

Exhibit E – All-Ireland Final – Kilkenny vs Tipperary – 9 September 2014
1 minute of injury time added. Sides are level, a questionable free is awarded to Tipperary. The incident is similar to the free awarded in the 2012 final between Kilkenny and Galway, but this time the free is given to the defending player rather than the player with the ball. Had the free been given to Kilkenny it would almost certainly have been scored.

The entire 1 minute of injury time is used up taking the free and waiting for a decision from Hawkeye, play resumes with 71 minutes 23 seconds on the clock yet no additional time is played after the puckout. The referee ends the game immediately, with the sides level.

What’s going on?
I don’t believe there is a conspiracy to create draws for the GAA, but I do believe the referees are taking the easy way out by giving teams “a chance” to equalize, or blowing up if the sides are level. The pattern of this happening in the past makes it harder for a referees in the future.

There has apparently already been a decision to implement a public clock for hurling. That should happen urgently.

Tied championship games should always go to extra time. At the moment there’s a bizarre situation where a League game or a Qualifier game can go to extra time, but other championship games including the All-Ireland final is an immediate replay if the sides are level and the end of normal time.

Of course, hurling games need never go to a replay. Simply allowing tied teams to play on until someone scores would end most games within minutes. Perhaps requiring a team to lead by two points to clinch a game would be fairer, and should still end the game with very little extra time.

I don’t think the GAA try to engineer draws, but I suspect the likelihood of them ever eliminating them is fairly remote.

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