JOHN FOGARTY: Sideline should not be held as cut above rest

RTÉ’s recent Summer of Hurling series served as quite the reminder just how dazzling last year’s Championship was, writes John Fogarty. 

If season ticket sales for 2019 weren’t already rocketing they would have been propelled by this festive feast. Hurling may have considerable difficulties expanding itself as a game to be played but as one to be watched and revered it is a league of its own.

That isn’t to say there won’t be attempts to try and improve it.

The playing rules committee have had quite a job convincing the Gaelic football fraternity that their experimental changes are worthwhile but what they propose to trial in hurling next year faces an even sterner examination. That has as much to do with the additional tradition attached to the game as to how high its stock is at the moment.

The greatest respect the body paid hurling is the decision to delay any new rules until the 2020 pre-season and Allianz League competitions.

But what might be recommended? If, as is expected, the sin-bin rule comes into operation in Gaelic football, there would be good support for it to be extended to hurling. For the likes of Eddie Keher and Brian Cody who question the need for cards in the game, the idea might have appeal.

Something will have to be done to address the widespread abuse of the hand-pass rule — that fact was underlined by some of the passages in play in the Summer of Hurling episodes when transfers of the ball more akin to throws featured—although that may have more to do with a consistent application of the rule by referees than anything else.

And then there is the matter of increasing the value of a sideline cut to two points. This has been put into practice on a trial basis in 2005, Cork’s Ben O’Connor making history by becoming the first to score a two-point cut in a challenge against Galway that year. However it failed to be put into rule.

Four years ago, the Hurling 2020 committee headed up by now Tipperary manager Liam Sheedy broached the subject in a survey. Their study noted: “The introduction of two points for a sideline cut was met with equal positive and negative feedback during our consultation process. The survey results in this area were unequivocal, with 38% saying Yes, 27% Maybe, and 35% No. The recent introduction of this rule in camogie should be monitored with interest but at the present time, the Hurling 2020 committee do not see the requirement for the introduction of this change in the game of hurling.”

Of the 11 scored in last year’s Championship, Joe Canning scored five of them, the others coming from Mark Coleman (three), Rian McBride, Darragh O’Donovan and Tony Kelly (one). There are other fine exponents of the skill like TJ Reid, Jason Forde, Ronan Maher and Austin Gleeson but in just two full seasons, Cork wing-back Coleman is proving himself to be the closest to the undisputed king of the art, Canning.

But then some of Canning’s allies don’t seem too hot on the idea of appreciating a pointed cut. While accepting it is a “massive skill”, his manager Micheál Donoghue said last year: “If it’s not broken, you don’t have to fix it. The distance lads are getting is amazing but it is just a testament to the type of modern player there now. When you see a keeper landing one from his own ‘45’ it just shows that distance means nothing.”

Jason Flynn argued for something differently entirely: “I’d allow players hit sidelines from your hand but a player should not be allowed score from them unless it’s on the ground. I think it would speed up the game a lot.”

The fear is two-point sideline cuts could have a negative impact on the flow of a game as players give more consideration to trying to elevate the ball long and high enough between the posts. As Donoghue suggested, the strength of the modern-day hurler lends to more sideline cuts turning into points although the ball being lighter than it has ever been certainly helps too.

But our biggest grievance with the notion of giving more weight to the sideline cut is the unchallenged element of it. Placing it above a point that has been earned in action be it in the face of stern tackling or by clever tactical play in, around or over a defensive rearguard is nonsensical. The idea that a ball that has bounced off an opponent and out over the whitewash be punished so severely appears grossly unfair too. After a season when hurling’s equilibrium was so finely balanced, there shouldn’t be anything done to tilt it.

Decision on rules needed quickly

Limerick boss Billy Lee has backed the new hand-pass rules but it’s hard to find another Gaelic football manager left who is favour of the handpass rule.

Kerry manager Peter Keane expressed his opposition to the change on RTÉ last Sunday evening.

“There are five changes to be implemented there — it’s a lot in one sweep,” he reasoned. “We didn’t have a McGrath Cup to work on them so it’s very much a grey area for us. On top of that, you’ve a lot of young players coming in, new management coming in. We’ve more than enough to be worried about than the intricacies of rules that in two or three months time will be gone and then we’ve the old rules for the Championship. I understand they have to play them somewhere but so many in a short period of time is difficult.”

Right there, Keane gave the simple but logical explanation why Kerry chose to sit out the pre-season competition — football when they themselves are experimenting. He also added that the Allianz League isn’t high on his list of priorities.

Regarding the handpass, he said: “That would be the one I’m least in favour of. I understand you want to cut out the handpassing that’s in the game but it could be that fourth handpass, that fifth handpass that could create that goal-scoring opportunity. If you have a blanket defence and you’re trying to break it down, you might just need that handpass.”

Keane’s remarks followed those of Cork manager Ronan McCarthy who has added to the chorus of managers raging if not against the handpass rule then the uncertainty about it actually being implemented in the league.

These rule changes require a better test ground than pre-season competitions but the GAA would be wise to confirm their plans as soon as possible so that managers and teams can prepare accordingly.

Penalties better finale for now

The Connacht Council’s call to decide Sunday’s Connacht League quarter-final by a penalty shoot-out surprised many aside from the managements involved who were informed of the plan the day before.

It shouldn’t have come as too much of a shock. An additional 20 minutes of football in January would not be the preferred choices of teams. Besides, council secretary John Prenty, a member of the GAA’s Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC), was only taking a leaf out of the national body’s book. Instead of the freetaking shoot-out that was in place last year when teams couldn’t be separated after two different periods of extra-time.

At November’s Central Council meeting, the CCCC were given the go-ahead to develop “winner on the day” proposals for this year around penalty pucks/penalty kicks. Their recommendation will soon be known but how things developed between Mayo and Leitrim in Carrick-on-Shannon might give us an indication of their thinking as much as it followed normal time.

It might have had something to do with the result but Brian Cody wasn’t too enamoured with the free-taking showdown that decided last year’s Walsh Cup final.

More and more extra-time isn’t exactly in the interest of player welfare and penalties aren’t perfect — what is? — but at least they make the finale more exciting.

- john.fogarty@examiner.ie


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