Play the man, not the helmet

This year will surely go down in hurling lore as the Year of the Helmet. In an All-Ireland series marked by contentious helmet incidents, Austin Gleeson last weekend saw fit to give us one more: right in front of a linesman and right in front of a camera, arguably the most clear-cut incident yet.

Play the man, not the helmet

We can probably all agree that it’s a good thing that Austin Gleeson will be playing in the final. It’s a novel and refreshing All-Ireland pairing – only one final since 2006 hasn’t involved either Kilkenny or Tipperary – and victory will end a famine for either county.

In these circumstances, you’d want both sides to be full strength, to avoid any ‘what if’ questions and so that a victory won’t be compromised for either team.

And who doesn’t love watching Austin Gleeson play? Even on his bad days he’ll pull off some unlikely moment of ephemeral beauty. He has an appealing touch of on-field arrogance that is conspicuously absent off the pitch. Most of all, I admire his assertion that he doesn’t view being an inter-county player as a sacrifice – rather it’s a lifestyle he feels privileged to have.

But it has to be asked: what was he thinking? As Anthony Daly said on The Sunday Game: ‘There’s been so much talk for three weeks about helmets and my God, you’d say the last thing you’d go near today is a helmet.’

Gleeson’s teammates Shane Bennett and Tadhg de Búrca had already paid dearly for their own helmet infractions; you’d think if this was a deliberate part of Waterford’s game plan to unsettle their opponents, they’d have ditched it by now.

So what was going through Gleeson’s head as he pulled Luke Meade’s helmet clean off his head? I’m not sure I can wait 15 years for Austin’s tell-all memoir; I want to know now.

It’s been strange watching various punters tying themselves up in knots trying to excuse Gleeson’s actions (although Eddie Brennan, in fairness to him, has been fairly unequivocal).

He was looking the other way, they say – as if we haven’t seen Austin do far more intricate things without so much as a glance. The ball was out of play, they say – as if this makes it any less of an infraction on Luke Meade. I understand the reluctance to criticise amateur players after all they put in, when a mere appearance in an All-Ireland final is their reward for their year’s training.

I also understand the desire to give players the benefit of the doubt, but the fact remains that you don’t ‘accidentally’ stick your fingers in someone’s faceguard and tug.

It should be noted that at least some of these punters played bare-headed for years.

Helmets only became compulsory in 2010 and already they’re being weaponised against the wearers. It is (forgive me) a real head-scratcher. In my 15 years of playing camogie at adult level, I don’t think anyone has ever tried to remove my helmet, accidentally or otherwise. Helmets are supposed to be tight and secure – they don’t fall off at the slightest touch. But then, I can’t really recall ever seeing helmet-tugging in club games or underage games. It appears to be a phenomenon unique to the inter-county hurling championship – which in itself is odd since that’s precisely the arena in which you’re least likely to get away with it.

Eddie Brennan made the point that when players get away with these kind of incidents, there’s a trickle-down effect on young players: ‘if young lads of 14 and 15 get grabbed by the helmet and yanked left or right they are going to get seriously hurt.’

Brennan also drew attention to the 2010 incident in which Tipp’s Declan Fanning had to get 25 stitches in his ear after the helmet was wrestled off him – surely one of the inciting incidents for the current rule. Not to go all Helen Lovejoy on Austin, but surely he’s aware that his moves are recreated in backyards all over the country. Everything he does is lent a touch of glamour.

The last thing the GAA needs is some kid attempting to ‘pull an Aussie’ and for it to go horribly wrong.

Gleeson has escaped censure mostly because referee James Owens said that he saw the incident on the day and adjudicated on it – a confusing assertion, since he essentially let the incident go.

And it’s not as if he was being lenient on the day. Damien Cahalane’s second yellow was deserved but the first was soft; Pat Horgan was sent off in error, since it was Shane Kingston who scuffled with Conor Gleeson.

Considering that Austin went on to get that wonder score, and conjured a chance out of nothing for Jamie Barron’s first goal – Cork have reason to be aggrieved at how the match was reffed.

Speculation has arisen as to whether the rule should be kept at all. I think it should; messing with an opponent’s helmet should not be a tool in a hurler’s repertoire. For me, it’s not just a question of whether the action is dangerous; there’s a concern about sportsmanship too.

Pulling a player’s helmet is a cheap shot. It’s akin to throwing away an opponent’s hurley, but more invasive and aggressive, because it involves putting your fingers in someone’s face. And even if the intent is not to injure the player, there’s always a chance; eyes and necks are far too vulnerable in these situations. The problem with the rule is not its substance but the lack of consistency with which it’s applied – or not applied.

One strength of the GAA is that it’s not precious about its rulebook; it’s not afraid to change or create rules in line with a rapidly evolving game. Though we might miss the traditional penalty, it’s probably a good thing that goalies no longer have to face Anthony Nash’s blasters from 15 yards out. The helmet thing has by now reached a similar tipping point. We’re way past ‘play the ball, not the man’; at this stage, we’d nearly settle for ‘play the man, not the helmet.’

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