Clare must play the game not the man

To give an idea of just how glaring Clare’s concession of 15 pointed frees (24 in total) was on Saturday night, it’s one less than the placed balls that have been scored against Limerick across the first three rounds.

Clare must play the game not the man

To give an idea of just how glaring Clare’s concession of 15 pointed frees (24 in total) was on Saturday night, it’s one less than the placed balls that have been scored against Limerick across the first three rounds.

In total, Clare have coughed up a total of 1-32 from frees and penalties in their games against Tipperary, Kilkenny, and Cork.

In that same timespan, Cork, Kilkenny, and Wexford have all had 17 frees sent over their posts. Tipperary are closest to Clare with 1-18 posted against them but then nothing truly compares to how much the Banner are being punished for their indiscipline.

“I’d rather it happened this time of year than later on in the season,” was co-manager Donal Moloney’s assessment of those flaws in Páirc Uí Rinn. It is generally accepted that referees won’t be so strict in their application of the rule come the Championship but it’s a chastening period for Clare when it was they who were on the receiving side last summer, Peter Duggan scoring 1-67 from frees and a penalty in eight SHC fixtures. It helped that they faced a Tipperary side playing their fourth game in 21 days and a Limerick team lining out in their third in 15 but their transformation from the aggressed to aggressors has been startling. They have been here before, mind. In 2014, they were knocked out of the championship as Wexford racked up 12 points from frees in their replayed qualifier. Brendan Bugler and Jack Browne were also sent off as Podge Collins was in the drawn game. A year later they were dumped out of Munster by Limerick largely on the back of 10 Shane Dowling frees. Shortly after that game, two-time All-Ireland winning coach Paul Kinnerk, then on a break before returning to Clare after which he joined up with John Kiely in 2017, wrote a thought-provoking piece for the Irish Examiner on the art of tackling and how hurling is being refereed. His general point was that the way the game was being played had outgrown its rules and because frees are “scoreable within two-thirds of the field”, match officials were under added pressure to make the right calls.

He highlighted the scoreable free count read 14 to five against Clare in losing to their neighbours but argued they had been the victims of some inconsistent refereeing. Swarm tackling was not something to be viewed with suspicion, he stressed, but admired. In that regard, his paw prints were all over Limerick’s relentlessness in isolating opposing players last year.

Although Kinnerk later worked with Dónal Óg Cusack whose distaste for using ‘the spare hand’ in tackling is well-known, the Limerick native made allowance for it by the defending player when the opponent in possession remained in a fully standing position.

“It is a supreme art of balance, strength, and skill to be able to stop a player’s momentum forward in these cases. I think there are clear-cut cases of poor tackling in hurling and are correctly deemed as fouls. However, players that manage to delay attacking players forward momentum with correct ‘frontal’ use of hands, arms and chest that doesn’t break 90 degrees are being punished inconsistently. The ‘hook’ and ‘block’ are of course crucial defensive skills too but are inadequate alone with teams running with the ball more and more.”

It’s not that Clare are any dirtier than Limerick but they aren’t as cute. Last week, former Limerick forward Andrew O’Shaughnessy spoke of how Kiely’s side “in previous years mightn’t have been that aware of it, a bit too naive and honest maybe, but now they are more aware of the need to stop the runner”.

Like Clare, it’s not difficult for Tipperary to realise two of their biggest failings have been their tackling execution and defensive savvy. While they were unfortunate not to earn more frees in Wexford on Sunday, the vast majority of those awarded against them were correct calls.

That was the second time in four weeks Tipp have been acquainted with Colm Lyons so they’d have known his take on tackling. Liam Sheedy’s assessment that Lyons was harsh sending off Tony Kelly in Tipp’s opening round win over Clare hardly came back to bite him but he has watched enough of Lyons to know he is among those who stay closest to the rulebook. In these pages on Saturday, Derek McGrath explained the forensic detail his Waterford set-up put into approaching different refs.

“We’d have tapes of their decision-making over the last three years. Every decision they’ve made, patterns in terms of decision-making, what they give frees for normally.”

Earlier this month, Clare’s Colm Galvin struck a similar note. “You always try to play to the advantages that you know you might get away with one referee, but you won’t with another.”

Clare, though, don’t seem to be as adaptable as they should be. When frees are being scored almost at will, they can’t let them be the rocks they perish on.

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