About a decade ago, I played tag rugby once a week for a summer.

While I never played “real” rugby, this was easy enough to pick up (pardon the pun) and it was an enjoyable way to keep someway fit.

Sometimes, though, the rules got the better of me. There was the time in one of the early games where I made a knifing run from deep, got clear and sprinted over the line.

Delighted with myself at having got on the scoresheet, I nonchalantly tossed the ball away like they do in American football – forgetting that it needed to be touched down to be classed as a try, and so I was actually penalised for a forward pass.

Possession changes hands when the team with the ball have been “tagged” five times.

On one occasion, I thought that the referee had made a mistake when he said, “Tag four,” and I wondered aloud if it should have been tag five and a changeover. Immediately, he ran to where I was standing, close to our goal and reset the opposing team to tag zero.

It was far from a heinous crime by me, but it made sure that I didn’t question the referee’s authority in any more games, and it underlined the levels of respect afforded to them in the sport.


Almost always, players refer to the referee as “Sir” and there is little or no dissent, as the penalty is disproportionately heavy enough to be a near-complete deterrent.

A few years ago, there was a move at the GAA’s annual Congress to punish backchat by bringing frees forward 30 metres rather than the current 13. It would have made a lot of frees guaranteed points, and so clamped down on the problem in an effective way.

Presumably those who voted in strong enough numbers to defeat the motion were looking at it from the point of view that their team might be in danger of coughing up such easy scoring opportunities rather than benefitting from them.

It was just another example of the slow and gradual erosion of respect for referees in GAA, something that led to a lot of people being indirectly affected by the lack of games in Roscommon last weekend.

With the county’s referees having taken a decision to stand down in the wake of the vicious assault on one of their number, Kevin Naughton, in an underage game last Wednesday week – and with camogie and ladies’ football refs going out with them in support – the fields fell silent.

I have heard of a referee at a club game leaving the venue in his car and being followed out of the venue by a jeep, staying almost bumper-to-bumper in an act of intimidation.

Obviously, players around Roscommon were left kicking their heels through no fault of their own, but if such incidents don’t have a strong pushback, then unfortunately they will keep happening again and again.

Essentially, refs – or their linesmen or umpires – are the lightning rod for every bad thing that happens in a game. With no “supporters” to respond if you launch a tirade, they are the easy targets rather than searching elsewhere for more deep-rooted reasons for a defeat.

That eventually leads to a situation where a mentor to a team of teenage boys makes the decision to walk on to the field – ostensibly calmly – and assault a referee.

When players, managers or supporters bemoan the quality of referees, do they ever consider the fact that the risks attached to the role are enough to put plenty off ever giving it a try?

I have heard of a referee at a club game leaving the venue in his car and being followed out of the venue by a jeep, staying almost bumper-to-bumper in an act of intimidation.

At county level, it’s not unknown for a selector to be given the job of “marking” the referee, staying in earshot as much as he can to try to influence decisions.

It’s not as if anyone will ever get rich from being a GAA ref, so why put yourself in such a spotlight?

One would hope that the Roscommon incident would lead to a turning point but speaking on the radio last week, inter-county referee David Gough said that this would grab headlines for a few days and then, once a county made a high-profile managerial appointment, it would recede again until the next time.

Until there is strong, deterrent action, the risk of a next time will always remain.

Limerick protest venue change

Amusing is the wrong word, but it’s certainly somewhat unusual that the controversy around the Munster v South Africa rugby game on 10 November  is not where you might have expected it.

After a request from Cork County Board to host the game at Páirc Uí Chaoimh – the first rugby game at a GAA venue other than Croke Park – the association’s Central Council approved it without a hint of minority opinion.

It won’t be first-choice teams involved, as South Africa are fitting in the game between clashes against Ireland and France, but the novelty factor should draw a big crowd to the banks of the Lee.

Similarly, the income won’t make a huge dent in Cork’s stadium debt, but it’s obvious that the whole event is a dry run in case the possibility arises where “the Páirc” could hold a Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final or semi-final.

And that is also the reason why local media in Limerick were running stories about the possible loss to the local economy there due to the game not being in Thomond Park.

While the absence of one match in a November tour may not be crippling, the fear that Thomond Park would be relegated to second choice for the really big games in the future is something that those on Shannonside wish to guard against.

Of course, if and when that happens, it will mean that Munster are back at the very top table in Europe, so let’s put it in the “nice headache to have” folder.