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Ireland's Olympic controversy: Former umpire explains decision that handed Canada qualification as hockey stars bemoan 'nonsense' penalty call

Ireland's Eugene Magee and Jonathan Bell is disbelief after Sunday's defeat.
Ireland's Eugene Magee and Jonathan Bell is disbelief after Sunday's defeat.
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

A former international hockey umpire has joined the chorus of voices from across the sport to claim that Ireland have every right to feel aggrieved by the decision that ended their Olympic dream in Vancouver on Sunday evening.

Mark Tumilty's side will not be in Tokyo next summer after a contentious penalty stroke handed Canada a last gasp lifeline.

Ireland were 6-5 ahead on aggregate in the two-legged qualifier and even began to celebrate after time ticked down in the final quarter.

However, their joy soon ended when Canada's referral was used to engage the video umpire as James Wallace took a tumble in the circle after Lee Cole's stick caught his right foot in the closing seconds.

As the video official Diego Barbas looked at the replay, Irish hearts were in mouths.

"I was pacing in between the kitchen and the living room," said Bruce McCandless, who was watching on with Banbridge team-mates. "We looked at it and as far as we were concerned, it was going to be a corner at worst. Everybody was just speechless when he said 'stroke'. Heartbreaking. It was wrong."

It's a view that was shared by many across the hockey globe, especially given that the International Hockey Federation would later confirm that "umpires' decisions are final" and therefore there is no right of appeal for the Irish.

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"Absolutely robbed. Outrageous," tweeted one of Ireland's World Cup silver medalists Megan Frazer.

Scotland international Kenny Bain branded the decision 'shocking' and called on the International Hockey Federation to weed 'moments of madness' like that out of the sport.

The surprise spread to the very highest levels of the game as one of Australia's Olympic gold medalists from 2004 Grant Schubert said the 'shocking' decision had him 'shaking (his) head'.

There were voices of dissent, including Mario DeMello, who backed the video umpire's decision.

"Attacker had possession of the ball, defender reached from behind with no chance of playing the ball, his stick made contact with attacker's foot and took him down," he said.

So what exactly does that mean, and what was going on in the video umpire's mind as he replayed the footage?

A former international umpire has spoken to the Belfast Telegraph to outline the key considerations at play:

"The decision has certainly led to a number of angry and frustrated reactions on social media and beyond," he said. "Only incidents within the 23 metre area of the pitch, which are connected to the award / non-award of a penalty corner, penalty stroke or goal can be referred by a team.

"The 'easier' decisions for video umpires relate to incidents that are matter of fact but the 'trickier' decisions occur when interpretation creeps into the decision making process.

"The video umpire ultimately needs to determine whether there is a clear reason to change the on-field decision and communicate this to the on-field umpire.

"A penalty stroke is awarded for an offence by a defender in the circle which prevents the probable scoring of a goal or for an intentional offence in the circle by the defender against an opponent who has possession of the ball or an opportunity to play the ball. In applying the rules, the actions and intention of the defender must be taken into account.

"It is my interpretation that the criteria for a penalty stroke has not been met on the basis of where the tackle occurred and with the defender being reasonably well positioned, whilst making a genuine tackle with his stick on the ground.

"However, the video umpire has interpreted this very differently on this occasion. It's massively disappointing and unfortunately the consequences will take a long time to get over."

Ultimately, it's a decision that costs Irish Hockey dear, and Banbridge's McCandless wonders if a different strategy in appointing officials could help in future.

"I'm gutted for all the boys, especially Eugene (Magee - Banbridge and Ireland stalwart) as this could be the end of his Ireland career," he said.

"It's sad for Irish Hockey as a whole. The tackle was an honest tackle. It was just mistimed and the man has gone over but he (the video umpire) has got it wrong and I'm sure he knows it.

"Ireland v Canada and France v Spain were always going to be the close games. The likes of the Dutch and the Germans were always going to go through.

"In my opinion, you send the best officials to those games and then you don't get mistakes like these.

"It wasn't as if it was in the moment, it was a considered call and he's come up with that nonsense."

Lisnagarvey head coach Errol Lutton knows all about the graft that goes on behind the scenes by players and coaches alike and said that those efforts should not go unnoticed in the midst of the 'absolutely heartbreaking' controversy.

"I have worked with some of the group and I know the commitment they have shown in terms of taking time off from work and away from home to prepare, 6am gym sessions, working in the evenings and going down to Dublin," he said.

"Then it all comes down to the finest of margins, it's heartbreaking.

"It's easy to say you understand how they're feeling but you don't because you haven't been there.

"People may look over the two games and say they had chances to win it before then but that's neither here nor there. This is what it's come down to.

"It shouldn't take away from the work that Mark Tumilty has done, with the help of Jason Lee. They only had a short time working with the group but they had the players playing back up at their levels. It won't be any consolation to him but the work that was done shouldn't go unrecognised."

On the decision itself, Lutton was watching on from home as the video umpire poured over the replay.

"We had one camera angle and it appeared to be ok in real time," he explained. "The guy appeared to go over, whether or not there was enough to award a stroke or not, that didn't appear to be the case.

"Nobody could believe it but then I don't have the benefit of any additional camera angles the video umpire may have had access to. He has to make a decision and to stand over that.

"Ireland have been here before with what happened against Korea in 2012 (when the visitors scored the winner with two seconds remaining in an Olympic qualifier) but nothing as tight as this.

"From knowing you're going to the Olympics to facing a shoot-out in such a short period of time, it's a compliment to the guys that they made as good as go at the run-ins as they did.

"They've given everything and I think the way they've conducted themselves has been an example to everybody."

Even if attention now turns to the women's qualifier against, of course, the Canadians this weekend, it will take some time before Irish Hockey recovers from the feeling of injustice after their heart-wrenching Vancouver defeat.

Belfast Telegraph Digital


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