Hurling folk can be a contrary lot sometimes.
Just take the reaction to one aspect of last weekend’s refereeing.
We knew that throwing the ball had become an epidemic in recent years, right?
We knew that referees had been instructing to clamp down on it this season, right? We could have inferred from this that dubious-looking handpasses that would previously have been let go would now be blown, right?
Right. Right. Right.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Sean Cleere’sperformance at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, in awarding four frees for what he saw as illegal handpasses he did his duty.
For his temerity in this regard he was criticised from a variety of quarters.
One can understand John Kiely’s angst on Sunday evening. No team bar Wexford make as much use of the manual offload as Limerick do when they win the ball from a ruck in the half-back line or midfield, then break mob-handed and create attacks via a latticework of handpasses or short passes off the stick.
In the next breath, however, Kiely acknowledged the solution: “A clear emphasis on the striking action in the handpass” and a consequent challenge to coaches to “try and reemphasise the need for that”.
This is invariably the bottom line on such issues. More and better coaching of the relevant skills and thus better execution of said skills on match day. All of which brings us neatly to the black-card debate and the predictable tenor of the objections raised to the proposal by the GAA’s Standing Committee on the Playing Rules.
“A football solution to a hurling non-problem.”
“The sport has never been faster or more fluent, so why try to mess with it?”
Et cetera, et cetera.
Hurling folk can be a precious lot, never mind a contrary lot, sometimes. Just because the game has never been more fast or fluent doesn’t mean it’s perfect or impervious to improvement.
Sports evolve. The rules are not stone tablets, otherwise we’d still be playing 21 a side or still interfering with the other lad’s faceguard. The hurling of 2020 is a first cousin rather than a brother of the hurling of 1980 and cannot be refereed in the same way.
In trying to get their message across in recent weeks the GAA could admittedly have done more to stress the bona fides of the members of the Standing Committee. Among its worthies are Willie Barrett (hurling guy), Frank Murphy (hurling guy), former Leinster Council CEO Michael Delaney (hurling guy and All-Ireland colleges winner, indeed) and Pat Daly of Croke Park (hurling guy). These men are not shadowy, faceless, football-oriented apparatchiks agitating to shoot Bambi’s mother.
One of their objectives, incidentally, was to be proactive in trying to manage the situation rather than do nothing and risk ending up fighting fires, as was the case with the penalty controversy early in the last decade.
For their body of evidence they examined data compiled by GaelicStats, who in analysing last year’s championship found an average of 26.6 fouls per game, nearly half of which they identified as being in the category of cynical or disruptive.
The 20 fixtures covered yielded a total of 29 professional fouls, incidents where no attempt was made to fairly win back possession (“best understood as a premeditated intention to foul”).
While three professional fouls every two matches scarcely constitute licentiousness on the scale of ancient Rome, the committee were exercised by the wide discrepancy in the sanctions applied: 16 yellow cards, one red card and in 12 cases no card at all.
The concession of a free means the non-employment of a defensive skill: A hook, a block, the ability to stay on one’s feet, stand up the opponent and refuse to make his decision for him. There is something lazy, something almost anti-intellectual, about a cynical foul.
Again the solution is the one identified by John Kiely. Better, more rigorous coaching. Today’s hurling may take place at warp speed, with half-backs rebooted as head bottlewashers and conditioned to place the sliotar to the advantage of a team mate if they don’t go the whole hog and have a pot from distance themselves, yet room surely still exists for defenders who want to defend, modern versions of Martin Hanamy or Willie O’Connor or Brian Murphy (Bride Rovers version).
At times like these it is always useful to take soundings from Liam Griffin, a man who loves hurling wisely but not too well. Griffin has long favoured a sin bin.
“Why,” he asks, “should we fear good discipline? It makes for a better game. It should help improve skill levels and improve the flow of the game, not hinder it.”
By way of a caveat he adds that both clarity and more intelligent refereeing would be essential from day one in order to complete the circle from implementation and make a sin bin work for the benefit of the game.
One would have expected Eddie Brennan, as a former forward, to favour the introduction of some additional sanction and he does.
One would have expected John O’Dwyer, as a current forward, to favour it too but he doesn’t, asserting that “cynicism has existed since 1884”.
Which or whether, a debate has been had instead of a round of communal backslaps. Every second lad on Twitter appears to have thrown in his tuppenceworth.
Unusually for Twitter, most of them actually made sense.
The parameters of the discussion might even be broadened. Although barricades are much more easily erected in gaelic football, hurling continues to demonstrate that the loss of a man is rarely insurmountable.
Tipperary came from behind to win last year’s All-Ireland semi-final with 14 men. Wexford do not operate with six forwards. Instead of a sin bin, then, how about punishing cynical behaviour inside the 50-metre line by the defending team with, say, an automatic penalty or a two-point free?
Too big a leap? Perhaps. The trick remains to find the optimum manner of exacting an appropriate tax without making it look like a silly stunt.
There may never be a balance that will satisfy everyone and clearly a sizeable constituency of hurling folk are content to accept a certain element of dark artistry.
Still, this has been a brisk and worthwhile debate.