I played hurling into my 40s, the last decade with a terrific club in Belfast called Bredagh.
I used to play centre back for them. Never fond of running, even when (rarely) fit, I used to sit in the pocket and enthusiastically direct others. One day I got the runaround in a league game by a guy who had just been dropped off the Antrim panel and had a point — or in that game about 10 points from play — to prove.
At the time we were coached by the legendary Seán McGuiness, the former Down and Antrim senior hurling manager. Seán had a number of set speeches, one of which was that a centre back should be like a pendulum, able to cover across the half-back line. After the above display, Seán launched into the speech but finished it with “but you Jack are like a stopped clock”.
Trying to look on the positive — at least that meant I was right twice in the game — I was demoted to goals: the older you get in GAA; the closer to the line you go.
The benefit of goals is that I got to know our full-back line. The full-back line in junior hurling is a bit like the front row in junior rugby — best left to their own devices. At the time, our full back was from north Antrim. He said very little, even for someone from that taciturn part of our island. As far as he was concerned, the phrase “aye right” was a sentence in itself.
In a derby game against Carryduff — the most middle-class derby in Ulster; think Volvos v Audis — a young full forward, collar up, socks neatly covering his shin pads, arrived in the square after an elaborate warm-up routine.
He greeted our full back with the phrase “alright auld boy, fancy a run”. I glanced at our usual umpire — an unrepentantly but, to be fair, consistently biased club stalwart. We both winced. This was not going to end well.
Sure enough, the full forward, collar askew, shin pads having passed every safety test known to EU law, was called ashore prematurely. To borrow one of Seán McGuiness’s phrases, “if they’d had a thoul (West Belfast for towel) on the sideline, they’d have thrun it”.
As the misfortunate forward departed, my full back said what was the funniest line I ever heard on a hurling field: “I hope you still have time to make your Pilates class.”
When David Hassan, chair of the GAA’s Playing Rules Committee (PRC), stood in front of Congress last month to make the case for the black card in hurling, he reminded me of that forward.
And worse, as my colleague John Fogarty noted, the temperature in the room dropped — even the “tae” went cold — when Hassan prefaced his remarks by saying that hurling was tolerating a certain level of cynicism and that the hurling community should not “conflate” what they want with what the game needs.
And with that, you hoped that Hassan had not forgotten his shin pads.
That feeling was reinforced when one of the first to speak against the motion came from the Kilkenny delegation. Having Kilkenny take the lead against a motion on hurling is a bit like the Dragon Queen sending in the Unsullied in the Game of Thrones. Unless you have the Army of the Dead (otherwise known to the hurling fraternity as counties where Gaelic football predominates) with you, then all is lost.
Football’s Army of the Dead, troubled with their own concerns about inconsistences with cards, sided this time with hurling’s Unsullied to form an overwhelming majority, in an episode the will be recalled in Congress-lore as Black Card Down.
The PRC probably did themselves no favours in that the data they had on cynical play (of which there’s plenty) was not released in advance to counter the hurling lobby. The hurling community, as I found out recently on a trip to Delhi, share the Indian approach to traffic laws: Don’t mind the rules, just let it flow.
Probably fatal for the PRC was that the black card as an idea to counter cynical play in hurling was never trialled, nor was any other solution that might be equally effective but not entail losing a player for 10 minutes, ever canvased by them.
The irony of this is that when the PRC did present a comprehensive, evidence-based change and did begin to trial it in a major competition, that rule experiment in football — the three handpasses in a row rule — was prematurely ended early last year.
Looking back, that hasty decision seemed to undermine the authority and diligent good work of the current PRC and it is around then that the current feeling of “rule fatigue” began to set in.
While one academic of renown, Professor Hassan, was being put through his paces by the Hell’s Kitchen that is the riled hurling lobby at Congress; another academic, Larry McCarthy, was elected as the next president of the GAA. McCarthy, among other things, is an associate professor, specialising in sports management, at Seton Hall University in the US. He said that if elected he would seek a sabbatical from his job and base himself in Ireland for the three years.
McCarthy has remarked that sabbaticals are not
uncommon in academia. That is true but what is also true is that his request to his Dean of Faculty will likely be one of the most unusual requests in the history of American academia, and you can imagine the correspondence:
Dean: Larry, please explain, in English if you can, what that job entails.
Larry: It means three years of almost continual meetings trying to convince people with short term personal and professional agendas to act for the long term good of the organisation as a whole.
Dean: Sounds like my job. Sabbatical granted. Ádh mór.”
Jack Anderson is Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne.