After two pretty negative Congresses for the outgoing playing rules committee, Saturday’s convention was a triumphant conclusion of business for the David Hasson-led group.
Eight motions put forward, eight motions passed, it couldn’t have gone better and reflects the GAA’s willingness to accept change, although the result of one or two proposals may have been different had they been discussed in hall as opposed to virtually.
Saturday was one of those days when the GAA rulebook made up some of the ground it has lost on the hurtling evolution of hurling. The experimental sin bin/penalty rule, which also applies to football this year, is a genuine attempt to penalise players who have realised up to now that it does pay to foul.
Even if the video nasties of cynical acts that stopped goal chances couldn’t be played because of technological issues, the GAA presented this one right. As a former All-Ireland final referee, not to mention the national referees development chairman, Willie Barrett was a strong choice to deliver the motion.
Outgoing GAA trustee and former Tipperary chairman John Costigan then led the charge: “If the level of cynicism that we saw creeping into the game of hurling over the past championship was to continue for another 12 months I shudder to think what the situation would be if it weren’t addressed.
We are custodians of the greatest field game of them all, hurling, and it’s incumbent on us to preserve the integrity of our game which comprises excellent scoregetting and excellent defending. The art of defending to me is as important as good scoring.”
Costigan listed examples of good defending: Nickie Quaid in 2018 snaffling the ball from Seamus Harnedy, JJ Delaney blocking Eoin Kelly’s strike in the famous 2013 qualifier in Nowlan Park, and John McGrath hooking Colin Fennelly in the 2019 All-Ireland final.
If there was a touch of nostalgia in Costigan’s remarks, he could be forgiven for indeed some of the art of stopping a player has been lost. The contrast between how the aforementioned Delaney denied Seamus Callanan a goal with a sublime hook in the 2014 All-Ireland final replay and Adrian Tuohey’s rugby tackle on Callanan in last year’s quarter-final couldn’t be starker.
Kilkenny chairman Jimmy Walsh revealed they twice postponed their county board meeting so that they could discuss the finalised list of motions. Declaring it a game-changer and believing changes to the rules are required to tackle cynicism in the game, he spoke against it.
“With three separate sanctions, we feel it is a bridge too far,” he argued. “A penalty is equal to a goal at this level, a yellow card has always been a serious impediment to a player and now 10 minutes on the line with increased pressure on officials to get every call right.
“We all recall the three-in-one vaccine and in these times our vaccine solution is one jab or two jabs and that should do it here as well.”
Instead of incentivising more goals as is intended, Walsh questioned whether it could have the opposite effect and lead to more defensive play, particularly in the closing stages of games. That won’t be known until it is trialled though.
Remember too, it was Kilkenny Central Council (CC) delegate Ned Quinn’s concern about cynicism that meant his respected voice joined Costigan’s and Westmeath CC delegate Tom Hunt last month to make sure the motion was on this Clár rather than a Special Congress at the end of the year.
On a day when Cork voted for every motion and every one of them was passed, county chairman Marc Sheehan said: “This is a significant ongoing issue for the game. There are some ifs certainly in what is proposed but on balance Cork are happy to support and would urge support on the basis that it’s the time to act.”
As a team long blessed with more skilful than physical players, that is also notoriously goal-shy, and a county that is into its 16th year yearning for an All-Ireland SHC title, it could be interpreted that the sin bin will be a rule that favours them (Cork Central Council delegate Tracey Kennedy also backed the motion).
Captain Patrick Horgan doesn’t see it that way but we maintain sometimes those at the coalface don’t know what’s best for themselves.
Hurlers have shown they can adapt better than most and soon it will be a time to be creative again. Just like footballers found a way of not bringing down an opponent while committing a cynical foul, defending players will work on what they can do to illegitimately stop an opponent from scoring a goal without being sent off for 10 minutes or conceding a penalty.
The GAA can deal with that sort of behaviour if it manifests and by no means is the motion perfect but for now its administrators have begun treatment on an unsightly sore on the game.
In his now famous Sunday Game appearance last May, former GAA president John Horan noted one upside to the lockdown. He highlighted the use of apps like Zoom and how “training programmes for county teams could take advantage of digital platforms”.
That may very well be how teams are collectively training right now but to say they are conducive to running major events such as Annual Congress would be stretching it.
As progressive in terms of the amount of motions passed into rule at Saturday’s gathering over Microsoft Teams was, the technical glitches, delegates’ unfamiliarity with the technology, and cumbersome nature of proceedings via the digital medium made it a surreal experience.
“It was tricky,” acknowledged GAA director general Tom Ryan. “No point in saying otherwise. We tried our best to plan for every eventuality, but even when you do that, little things can crop up that you haven’t foreseen, and we’re all at the mercy of technology.
“And we’re all at the mercy of muting and unmuting ourselves at the right time. I hope we don’t have to do another one like it. It did go well. But it’s complicated and stressful, so I just hope it’s the last one we have to do like that.”
Before it was discovered that he had been quoting the GAA’s original 2020 financial report figures (which were later corrected), Offaly chairman Michael Duignan’s contribution was the biggest talking point of Congress’ morning session.
The kernel of Duignan’s argument is a valid one but by relying on erroneous figures his point on Saturday was lost.
As new GAA president Larry McCarthy revealed, Duignan acknowledged his error in a message to GAA chiefs.
Although he attempted to rebut Duignan’s remarks at the time but was not recognised, Dublin chairman Mick Seavers was later given the opportunity to do so and he executed it expertly having defended his county at previous Congresses.
Duignan insisted he wasn’t attacking Dublin — “This is not an anti-Dublin support — I have huge regard for this Dublin team — but I think this whole discussion, I won’t say has been swept under the carpet, but times have changed. Dublin received support when they needed it and I think other counties do as well now.”
But it’s very difficult not to be seen to be opposing the Dubs when in this funding situation as in so many others they are the barometer. Two years ago, Donegal tried to mask their contempt for Dublin’s cosy relationship with Croke Park by proposing no team be allowed declare it as their home ground in the Super 8s.
“In my opinion, this is the first motion that has targeted a specific county,” Dublin GAA secretary John Costello told delegates. “It is divisive, it is mean spirited.” Just 36% of Congress voted for the motion.
If you come at the king, you best not miss.