Tackling cynicism: Former hurling referees talk black cards, sin bins and 'horrendous rucks'

PM O’Sullivan canvasses the opinion of three former hurling referees on proposed rule changes to the game.

Tackling cynicism: Former hurling referees talk black cards, sin bins and 'horrendous rucks'

Pat Ahern feels hurling’s most pressing problem is immediately evident at the throw-in.

“What do you normally see?” he asks. “Once upon a time, there were four hurlers, waiting for the ball, giving each other the hip. Now you could have any amount of players in on the fringes.

“I would allow for a free if anyone encroached on the four midfielders. A fair amount of hurling’s problems are to do with crowding in the middle. Create a bit of space out there and you would solve a lot. But how do you manage that, over the 70 minutes?”

Ahern enjoyed a 16-year career, during the 1990s and 2000s, as a top-level referee. Formerly a Carlow Town clubman, he later became inaugural chairman of Setanta Ceatharlach. He mentors upcoming referees, leaving him well placed to comment on upcoming proposals before Congress.

“There is a decent case to be made for a black card in hurling,” Ahern allows. “The same for a sin bin provision. I went to last year’s All-Ireland final between Kilkenny and Tipperary. During the first half, how many scores came from open play? Both teams defended fairly cynically on the day, giving up frees, before the game blew open in the second half.”

He reckons a wide angle lens is required: “But you can’t take incidents in isolation. There’s an overall issue with the spare hand in tackling. Hurlers no longer keep two hands on the hurley anything like as much. This tendency fell more and more into the game with so many extra bodies around the middle third.

“Hurling changed not just by getting seriously faster, through fitter and better conditioned players. Hurling also changed by hurlers trying to round each other in much reduced spaces. The spare hand factor means high tackles are a bigger issue than ever before.”

Pat Ahern
Pat Ahern

Ahern advances an important distinction: “There are probably two main elements in assessing whether a tackle deserves a card. There is your high tackle when the arm or the hand comes up into an opponent’s facial area. That could do a lot of damage, especially if the player being tackled is moving fast.

“I think those kind of tackles are a black card, a red card. Clearly so. We have to keep our hurlers safe. Referees and rules are there above all else to protect players.”

He continues: “Then you have where a hurley might make contact with an opponent’s helmet. I’m thinking of where a player is over a ball, trying to rise it, and an opponent comes in, trying to flick away the ball. This scenario can sometimes lead to the tackler’s hurley flicking against the other player’s helmet, which usually leads to a big howl in the stands, especially if that player goes down on the ground.

“You have to be careful in this situation. What was the degree of force the tackler used when trying the flick? He is not entitled to pull any way he likes, of course. But was his initial attempt reasonable? Did his hurley glance up off the other hurley towards the helmet? If so, a free is probably a fair call, and maybe a card not warranted. But you will have those howls…”

Jimmy Cooney offers valuable perspective on this topic. Not many holders of a Celtic Cross in hurling proceeded to referee at the highest level. The Sarsfields clubman featured at left-corner-back when Galway defeated Limerick in 1980s senior final. Then Cooney, having retired in the early 1990s after a successful period with his club, donned refereeing garb.

He became a much respected official before an unfortunate event intervened. Cooney blew up five minutes early in the 1998 All-Ireland semi-final between Clare and Offaly. He instantly realised his mistake, and wanted to rectify it by restarting the game, but got bustled off the pitch by over zealous stewards. A promising career petered out.

“The first thing is that refereeing has changed in massive degree,” Cooney begins. “That’s because hurling itself has changed so much. There’s a world of a difference with my days back in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s much faster in 2020 than it even was in 2010. So how much faster is it than in 1980?

“Take the puckouts. As a referee, you used position yourself knowing 99% of them were going down on the opposition half-back-line. Now you have teams playing through the lines, the goalkeeper going to the corner-back, to a wing-back. This has a knock-on effect for the referee, how he positions himself for a puckout. He has to be on the move a lot more.”

Cooney believes the referee’s load needs to be lightened in this 21st-century context: “Reviews have been successful in rugby. The referee can stop the game and see whether a ball was knocked on, whether a foot was in touch. Nearly always, there is clear video evidence. Why not introduce a similar system for big games in hurling?

Jimmy Cooney
Jimmy Cooney

“You could argue this system would only be an extension of Hawkeye. The game is stopped there to check out whether a point is good or bad. Why not check out whether a goal is good or bad? Or a penalty decision?”

He wryly foresees an attendant facet: “Yes, there would be implications for timekeeping, if you stop the game several times. I don’t want to be going back over my experience in 1998 yet again, but it did highlight the issue’s importance. Referees have plenty to be doing. Where would be the harm in leaving time to someone on the sideline, someone with nothing else to concentrate on? It works in ladies football, doesn’t it?”

Like Pat Ahern, Jimmy Cooney is open to the proposals before Congress: “To me, you do see more cynical drag-backs. Maybe it’s coming in from football, but it’s definitely on the increase in hurling. No harm in giving these changes a trial. Let’s see if they do reduce the annoying stuff.”

Aodán Mac Suibhne respectfully differs. “I hear what Pat and Jimmy are saying,” he emphasises. “But we could look at sin bins and black cards in another way. Do we not need hurling solutions to hurling problems? I’m not sure cynical play is a major problem in hurling, but I am sure cynicism is nothing like as big an issue there as it is in football. The two games are totally different in nature, which is crucial.”

Mac Suibhne elaborates: “I wouldn’t be removing a player from the field without very good reason. A close game really heats up in the last ten minutes. If this black card or sin bin comes in, you are going to see a disproportionate amount of big decisions happening when a game comes to the boil. Do we want the major talking points after an All-Ireland final to be a hurler, or maybe several hurlers, sitting out the last ten minutes?”

This Dublin native speaks with authority and passion. Referee for the senior final in 2002 and 2004, the St Jude’s clubman was considered one of the finest figures to take up the whistle. Now resident in Balla, County Mayo, he no longer officiates but remains immersed in hurling’s progress.

“I’ve definitely been following the debate about possible rule alterations,” he adds. “My query would be whether enough onus is being put on the players. If these new disciplinary measures come in, there is going to be additional pressure on referees.

“A different sort of rule change could force the players themselves to make the big decisions. When a corner-forward cynically fouls a corner-back, stopping him from initiating an attack, you could have a rule that allows a 65 to be awarded. A 65, today, is nearly a guaranteed point.

“If that sanction was there, I don’t think you’d see too much cynical play by corner-forwards for too long, even in the last ten minutes of a game. The players are not stupid. They are not going to pay a price, in whatever part of the field, if that price is too high. The players are pragmatists. They want to win, and will stop doing anything that gets in the way of winning.”

Aodán Mac Suibhne
Aodán Mac Suibhne

Mac Suibhne stresses this approach and a freer game: “You have what’s known as a ‘penalty try’ in rugby. There is scope to empower referees to award a goal in hurling if they feel cynical play prevented a near certain goal. There is also scope to allow the award of a penalty if cynical play prevented a goal opportunity from accruing, even if the cynical pull down or whatever did not occur within the specific penalty zone. A penalty in hurling, with now only the goalkeeper on the line, is odds-on for a goal.

“Again, I believe defenders would soon start to regulate their own behaviour if conceding goals or penalties was the price to be paid. You would just need to have a run of matches refereed strictly in these terms. And you would soon see a big fall off in cynicism, I don’t doubt.”

Rewarding attacking play drives Mac Suibhne’s attachment to the most beautiful game. He is plain: “I always felt, as a referee, I was there to serve the players. I was there to allow the skilful hurler, in particular, to show how good he is. I think of Jamesie O’Connor. I think of DJ Carey. It was a privilege to be on the pitch when DJ scored that point [straight off his hurley] in the 2002 All Ireland [Final].

“Now I think of Patrick Horgan. That goal he scored last year against Kilkenny off his knees… I think of Séamus Callanan, who keeps on getting these masterpiece goals. The rules must allow this type of hurler to flourish.”

Mac Suibhne isolates a cusp moment: “I could feel the changes that were coming in the difference between 2002 and the 2004 All-Ireland [final]. 2002 was a much more open game to referee. With 2004, you had Dónal O’Grady and Cork coming with a possession-orientated short game. You had Brian Cody and Kilkenny not wanting to allow it.

“One of my refereeing regrets happened in 2004, in fact. Henry [Shefflin] said to me afterwards in the players lounge: ‘There was something going on today, Aodán, and ye didn’t spot it.’ It turned that a Cork back had been consistently interfering with a Kilkenny forward’s helmet, constantly untying its strap, distracting him. That forward deserved better protection.”

History swept forward: “Eventually Kilkenny figured out Cork, and got on top, and then got on top of everyone. Then people had to figure out Kilkenny, who were so strong in the air, so strong under puckouts. Now we have evolved into a game with too many bodies around the middle, to avoid 50:50 battles under a puckout. Kilkenny are no longer on top but the influence of their great spell remains.

“Part of that time’s legacy is these horrendous rucks around the middle of the field. Eliminating them, and the dangerous tackling that follows, would be a great day’s work. Allow four men, maximum, for a throw-in. Everyone else a designated distance away. Over time, if players couldn’t stay put for a throw-in, they would probably hold more to their own area, decongesting midfield.”

Mac Suibhne concludes with a broader moral: “I’m a proud Dublin man, and delighted with our footballers’ five in a row, but there is so much talk of ‘process’ around them. I was delighted to see Monaghan to take them right on in that recent league match, and maybe Monaghan deserved to win, for their positive approach. Football teams need to try and score more than Dublin, not just to contain them.”

Then a thoughtful passionate man’s credo: “We need instinct. We need genius. That’s what people love.”

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