Don’t let hurling destroy itself in pursuit of justice

Don’t let hurling destroy itself in pursuit of justice
CONTENTIOUS DECISION: Tipperary defender Cathal Barrett is caught late by Richie Hogan in Sunday’s All-Ireland SHC final, a challenge that resulted in the Kilkenny man being sent off. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

This is not a column about VAR. I promise. Well, not really. It’s about hurling, and how it appears to be intent on destroying itself. By bringing in VAR. Wait, wait, don’t run away!

Look, you may remember on these pages a few weeks ago that we made a solemn promise not to talk about VAR and all its works and empty promises. But since then it has been impossible to ignore, dominating public debate and discussion. Oh, how we long for those sultry summer weeks when all people talked about was the backstop and Love Island.

As the defining issue of the Premier League’s opening weeks, VAR chat has proven itself to be as unavoidable as it is tedious. It’s like one of those BBC Northern Ireland political shows that come before a midweek Match of the Day; those of us who refuse to engage have no choice but to wait it out until the football comes on.

So, what madness has come over the hurling fraternity, proprietors of the most exciting sport in the world, that they have looked at the indigestible gruel being slurped down by soccer fans and cried: I’ll have what they’re having?!

Tipperary selector Tommy Dunne and Limerick star Shane Dowling have been among those calling this week for the GAA’s own version of Stockley Park to be set up in some disused midlands industrial estate.

This comes in the wake of a series of refereeing controversies in the recently concluded All-Ireland series, most notably the sending off of Kilkenny’s Richie Hogan in Sunday’s All-Ireland final.

“It’s about time the GAA start investing money in the likes of VAR and help both players and referees,” said Dowling, whose team were denied a chance to level their semi-final against Kilkenny when officials failed to award them a late 65.

Because there is so much effort and work going into this thing. Players are putting so much in. They’re putting their lives on hold and decisions like that, I think referees need help and players need help.

“I think there has to be a technical component to it,” said Dunne, “where they can look at the decision on a replay and make the decision based on that. Having to make an off-the-cuff decision on something they may not have seen is madness in ways.”

Hard to argue with that. Dunne and Dowling are, after all, only restating the same themes that brought video refereeing to other sports — the pursuit of justice and the existence of technology to deliver it.

The bit about the effort being put in by players is especially compelling. How can we deny a fair outcome for the selfless county heroes who sacrifice all for the big day in Croke Park? Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

But VAR in soccer is teaching us exactly how elusive the pursuit of justice really is. The decision that denied Manchester City a deserved winner against Tottenham last Saturday was a correct application of the laws of the game. So why did it feel unjust?

Similarly, various microscopic offside decisions are, within a margin of error, factually correct, but still leave us wondering if the punishment fits the crime. Justice is being done but people are still complaining.

In reality, our tiny human minds cannot integrate the precision of VAR with this concept of justice, which is a vague, theoretical thing that we’ve been knocking about in our heads since King Solomon was a boy. Soccer has bastardised itself for something that still feels tantalisingly just out of reach.

And then there is the fact that when justice is seen to be done, it is also seen not to be done. Manchester City wondered why VAR did not intervene when Erik Lamela grappled Rodri to the ground earlier in Saturday’s match.

Imagine a VAR-assisted James Owens sending off Richie Hogan on Sunday, and then picture the uproar as Kilkenny fans dig up footage of various incidents of unpunished violence against their team.

“We want justice!” they would cry, over frame-by-frame tweets of stray hurleys clanging into Kilkenny noses.

Fairness and justice are just concepts human beings came up with to make sense of an uncaring universe. The prehistoric farmer believed if he prayed to the sun god his crops would grow; the inter-county hurler believes if he trains hard he will win an All-Ireland. In reality lots of random things happen that may or may not result in him getting what he feels he deserves, but VAR won’t be able to catch them all.

But these arguments might not be enough to save hurling from itself. So, let us appeal to its true nature. Let’s call it ‘hurling exceptionalism’. This is the belief hurling is special. They mention it from time to time, you might have gathered. Other sports have adapted to the impact of technology via the law of unintended consequences, but would hurling?

Sure, rugby can stop and look at a screen while battalions of chunky forwards rumble into position for the next set piece. American football ditto, with ad breaks. Soccer is already operating at an 80:20 ratio of controversy to actual football, so it’ll get used to the disruption of VAR.

Cricket is a sport that takes all day and serves itself tea half-way through — technology can squeeze in there fine. But hurling is different. In its purest form, and when it is done well, it never stops. Play rages from end to end. Physical exchanges are furious. Referees keep whistles dry. Restarts take seconds.

TV directors tear their hair out trying to squeeze in replays. It all builds to a raging crescendo and one team stands victorious, but really everyone’s a winner. It’s organic, wild, and ancient and they make lovely documentaries about it afterwards with lots of old men crying.

Do hurling people really want to risk all this for a maddening, technological pursuit of some murky notion of absolute, perfect justice? The answer is clear and obvious.

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