Eimear Ryan: Sideline specialists closing gap further between camogie and hurling

In hurling, converted sidelines have become, if not quite routine, then common enough; but in camogie they remain something of a freak occurrence.
Eimear Ryan: Sideline specialists closing gap further between camogie and hurling

Rebecca Hennelly of Galway with her father Gerry and seven-month-old niece Anna O'Reilly following last year's All-Ireland final win. Hennelly scored two points from sideline cuts (worth two points each) against Cork last weekend in a 0-15 to 0-12 win. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Now we know how inter-county camogie players have been spending their spare time during lockdown. When the first sideline from Galway’s Rebecca Hennelly went over the bar with a satisfying thwock last Sunday, the 2,000 viewers tuning in to the live stream collectively oohed and aahed and felt that we had witnessed something rare.

But then, Cork’s Chloe Sigerson had a go at a pointed sideline too. Her effort went wide, but it had the legs, and on another day it might have gone over. When Hennelly pointed another one from the opposite touchline, I sat up straighter, sure that I was witnessing a pattern emerging, a new turning point in the sport.

In hurling, converted sidelines have become, if not quite routine, then common enough; but in camogie they remain something of a freak occurrence.

The thing is, camogie’s rulebook makes it worth your while. Since 2012, a converted sideline is worth two points. It just didn’t really become relevant until last Sunday.

With Galway beating Cork in their last group game on a scoreline of 0-15 to 0-12, Hennelly’s two masterstrokes were the difference. What a boon for Galway in the 2020 championship to have a sideline specialist in their ranks.

In the late noughties, it was another Tribesperson who served as the gamechanger in the men’s code.

Hurlers scoring sidelines had definitely been a thing before Joe Canning showed up — hurling even had its own experiment with the two-point system, during the 2005 league — but it wasn’t until Canning began chipping them over with alarming regularity that other counties began to pull their socks up.

Now every county team has at least one sideline specialist, from Mark Coleman to Austin Gleeson to TJ Reid to Ronan Maher. Will the same thing happen in camogie in the coming years?

Slowly but surely, camogie is trending closer and closer to hurling, in terms of its skill levels, its physicality, and — importantly — its rulebook. This makes sense. Though the two sports are governed by different bodies, the cultural overlap between the two games, particularly at grassroots level, is significant.

Camogie players grow up idolising the hurlers they see on TV. Many camogie managers are former hurlers. And camogie matches are often refereed by refs who are used to hurling rules, meaning that shoulder-to-shoulder contact is often tacitly allowed.

These changes, while welcome, were not inevitable. As a kid, I played hurling as well as camogie for my club — not an uncommon experience for camogie players of a certain vintage — and had to keep two distinct sets of rules in my head, depending on whether I was playing with the boys or the girls.

I’m old enough to remember when a 45 was a 30, when teams were 12 a side rather than 15, and when you could catch the ball three times in possession rather than twice. I’m old enough to remember a position called ‘centre-centre’. We’ve come a long way since the 90s, is what I’m trying to say.

A new raft of changes this year has brought camogie more closely aligned with hurling.

Shoulder-to-shoulder contact is now — hallelujah! — permitted, though with the caveat that it should be ‘minimal’. 

The handpass goal, not seen in hurling since the 1980s, has finally been removed from camogie, though curiously the handpass point — something which I can’t remember ever witnessing on the field of play — has been retained.

Dropping the hurley is no longer allowed. I have to admit, this was one of the few camogie-only rules that I always enjoyed. If you found yourself in trouble, bottled up and unable to strike, there was great satisfaction in simply ditching the hurley and launching a long football-style handpass. For many camogie players, it’s become an automatic move, tied up in muscle-memory.

Last Sunday, a number of players were pulled for dropping the hurley, and I imagine there’ll be several more butterfingers moments in the championship until players unlearn that habit.

Interestingly, camogie penalties are now the same as in hurling. At first, this struck me as a pity. I liked the fact that, until this year, camogie preserved the traditional penalty: the ball on the 21 with three on the line. Maybe this was an unnecessary move, since there is no camogie equivalent of Anthony Nash — at least, not yet.

But maybe, as with the sidelines, it would have trended that way eventually.

As with all major rules changes, the most recent adjustments in the camogie rulebook will take some adjustment time for referees and players alike. But hopefully, the increased physicality will give refs more leeway to let the game flow.

At the moment, when a forward and a back collide, it’s a coin-toss as to whether the forward will be penalised for charging, or if the back will be penalised for impeding. In hurling, collisions are absorbed and normalised as part of the game; in camogie, someone must be held accountable for a collision, even if doesn’t always make sense.

Two football incidents last weekend illustrated the stark difference in how physicality is treated in the men’s and women’s codes. Cork’s Mark Keane and Tipp’s Aishling Moloney both executed perfect chest-catches under high dropping balls in the dying moments of their respective games. Both were being closely marked; both of their teams were a point down.

But while Keane scored a goal in the most dramatic and heroic of circumstances, Moloney had a free out awarded against her, for lightly shoving an opponent’s arm. As an observer, let alone a player, it would make you want to scream.

Being a ref is a very difficult job; I could not do it. We’re all human and all capable of making the wrong call in the moment. And obviously, bad refereeing decisions are made in the men’s games too; gender is not always the deciding factor.

But it is a pity to see women’s skill and physicality being interrupted by unnecessary whistles. But a time when our women’s codes are literally going from strength to strength, it is vital that the refereeing keeps pace.

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