Seemingly, the first GAA games in four and a half months have replaced The Irishman as the greatest letdown in history.
Considering the mitigating factors like a three-week preparation period behind a not so spectacular launch, expecting fireworks was as notional as believing Robert de Niro could deage like Benjamin Button.
But that didn’t stop us anticipating the best from players and demanding it as usual from referees. Damn them for calling the raw, sluggish hurling that was played in front of them. New rules? Shouldn’t common sense supersede everything?
But before we all embark on another season of blasting the fall guys, spare them a few thoughts:
As last year’s All-Ireland final referee Fergal Horgan told Dalo’s Irish Examiner Hurling Podcast last month, referees have had no opportunity to hone themselves coming into this year’s league.
Sure, some of them may have taken charge of their own county’s in-house matches but being expected to officiate up to usual standards on the national stage having gone months without an appointment was excessive.
Of all the people on the fields this past weekend, they had the most reason to be rusty. In that context, their performances in general were more than satisfactory.
With the words of the national match official administrators ringing in their ears from last Thursday, it wasn’t surprising that some referees applied the new advantage rule to the letter of the law.
It’s not just players who are trying to make the cut for Championship. First impressions last and heeding the interpretations and advice from those former referees who occupy these positions is a good way of being around for the summer.
It’s not the “would you ever let the game flow” pundits who dictate whether they will be taking charge of provincial finals and All-Ireland series matches but the national appointments committee.
As sure as a converted Patrick Horgan free is followed by another, referees’ attitudes invariably lighten up in Championship when the pressure to make the panel is off them.
For the time being, it’s about showing a practical knowledge of the rules, particularly those that have changed since last season.
In his column yesterday, Brian Gavin highlighted Liam Gordan’s decision not to sin bin Ger Walsh in the Antrim-Clare game on Sunday.
On the opening weekend, the Galway referee will be forgiven for that but he should also be afforded clemency when the checklist presented to referees before sending a player to the bin is that extensive that punishing him and awarding a penalty reads like a treatise.
Thomas Walsh did send a player to the line in the Wexford-Laois match but Lee Cleere’s infringement against Rory O’Connor was slightly more clear-cut.
If we think most refs will be reluctant to give them right now, just wait until the Championship.
The lack of supporters has meant the shrill of the whistle has never been more prominent. We might think it’s never been blown as often when it’s only because the buzz of the crowd is absent that it features more in our match experience.
How often before there were no crowds did you hear a whistle acknowledging a goal or a point? This new normal has unveiled all the machinery of the game. Add in other pandemic phenomenons like water breaks that also have to be called for and ended with a whistle, and the man in black’s punctuation of a game increases.
As pointed out before, the ball is in play for considerably more time these days, which should be a good thing but a byproduct is whistling to restart play and awarding frees. Scoring opportunities, including wides, regularly exceed 70 per match, and for each of the subsequent puck-outs a whistle is required to confirm play can recommence.
It’s not the referee’s fault that nearly every player these days plays with an oversized bas. The “lightness” of the sliotar is not his responsibility either, although he could be asked to check their authenticity in future courtesy of a specialised app.
Both elements have contributed to the game turning into a scorefest, which in turn requires signalling.
The most visible fall guy is the person endorsing those points.
Have you actually read the playing rules in the Official Guide lately? The version available online at the moment does not include the sin bin, updated advantage rule, concussion substitute, end of the maor foirne, interfering with a puck/kick-out and misconduct by team officials.
Without them, they are the GAA’s Ulysses. With them, they are Finnegan’s Wake. Lest we not forget the reading companion that is the referee’s handbook, which covers all that isn’t in the rulebook.
Maybe Dónal Óg Cusack will be proven right and Antrim will struggle in the top flight irrespective of their opening round win over Clare.
Maybe they will come crashing down to earth in UPMC Nowlan Park this weekend but it won’t be because of hubris. Manager Darren Gleeson was keen to move on from a memorable day for Antrim hurling.
And it’s not as if the players or their supporters expect every day to be like last Sunday.
But in beating Clare, Antrim have taken a major step in achieving their objective of remaining in Division 1, Group B this year. Anything more than finishing above Laois and avoiding the relegation play-off would be a bonus. Would finishing second last constitute a struggle? Maybe in Cusack’s eyes but in Antrim they have taken a dim view of his opinion since his call for an amalgamated Ulster team competing in the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
“Team Antrim is not working,” he declared in 2016. “I think team Ulster is the way. There’s nothing I’ve seen since we raised this a couple of years ago that tells me it’s not the way forward.”
Cusack’s idea also had the backing of GAA director general Páraic Duffy but it lacked insight into the investment being put into Antrim hurling by the Saffron Business Forum and the vision a new set of officials, since appointed, had for the county.
Believing every player should have the opportunity to play at the highest level, Cusack’s modus operandi is genuine but not giving Antrim their due credit after winning last year’s Joe McDonagh Cup and in their next game beating Clare weakens his point.
Five days out from the start of the National League competition and the Camogie Association has yet to reveal the results of the poll about the structure of the season. Talk about leaving things to the last minute. If you didn’t know any better, you might call it brinkmanship.
Remember, the GPA has highlighted inter-county players are ready to down hurleys for the competition. Cork defender Laura Treacy told the42.ie over the weekend: “We feel like we haven’t been heard as players. I’m one of the GPA reps and I do know that our county will be boycotting the league next weekend if things aren’t resolved.”
The rumours that Liberty Insurance will no longer be sponsoring the All-Ireland championships have not gone away. Has the uncertainty around that financial backing prompted the Camogie Association to delay the competition and allow them more time to secure its future?
Either way, sponsors or prospective ones won’t be too happy with yet another fallout nor Littlewoods who are due to launch their support of the National League on Thursday. Cork captain Amy O’Connor and Kilkenny forward Katie Power are due to speak at the event.
And why in the consultation document sent out by the organisation is the inter-county championship an eight-week competition in the original season format but four weeks more in the split season model? With the new Government funding model for inter-county camogie and ladies footballers ensuring parity with their male colleagues, it should be a good news week for female GAA sports but the guillotine hanging over this league ensures it is not.