The irony of Tony Kelly’s extraordinary point to level the Munster final and trigger extra time is that for all the technical mastery required to float it over from such an acute angle and in the context of late injury time at the end of such a big match, he would have been better off missing.
Of course, it wasn’t part of his rationale when addressing the ball that Limerick would beat them anyway over the 90 minutes but, effectively, the losing team could have done without the last 20 minutes of gruelling play given that they would be out again in 13 days.
All the more demanding when it is factored in that Clare knew Limerick were more vulnerable that day than they would likely be at any future date this summer with the expected return of two All Star forwards. They therefore threw the kitchen sink at the final.
Disappointment at narrowly failing to execute the ambush cut deep and exacerbated physical and mental tiredness.
Then came the aftermath. Two Clare players were cited as having cases to answer by the Central Competitions Control Committee and one-match suspensions were recommended as the punishment.
Rory Hayes and Peter Duggan have been among the county’s most prominent players this season and their prospective loss is a further burden going into this weekend against a Wexford side, arguably the best in Leinster, and over the past two years sternly competitive against Clare.
Yet there is no real arguing the merit of the CCCC decision. Both committed red-card infractions which were not dealt with by the referee, John Keenan, and therefore were open to review by the GAA’s disciplinary apparatus.
It’s not yet known whether Clare will persevere with the challenge as no-one wants an ongoing, off-field drama distracting from match preparation, particularly if there’s not much chance of a successful challenge.
Public reaction has been interesting. The match was hugely well received. It symbolised those days when hurling is transported into its own dimension and plays out in displays of skill, physicality and indifference to danger that are unrelenting and equal.
The officiating was so light-touch that it made the pre-bust regulation of the Irish financial sector look like something implemented by the Chinese government.
Initially, the referee was hailed as being at one with the occasion and its demands but if you’re going to go with the flow, and treat the rulebook as optional, there are consequences for two groups.
Firstly, players now no longer have any parameters. John Keenan didn’t issue a manifesto in advance and declare that certain rules wouldn’t be applied but he extemporised as the match went on. This is not conducive to good behaviour on the pitch.
The Munster final was saved from anarchy by the players largely getting on with it. It is to Keenan’s credit that both teams trusted in him to the extent that they didn’t complain or start throwing themselves around to exaggerate fouls but there was an atmosphere of – if you’re being positive – abandon and – if you’re not – lawlessness.
Players even subconsciously must have felt they could get away with more physical or ‘on the edge’ behaviour than might usually be tolerated.
Selective enforcement also leads to injustice, not because of any prejudice or bad faith on the part of the official but because certain players get fouled without any redress and others don’t.
Séamus Flanagan, who had a terrific match, was involved in two incidents – one, taking Cathal Malone in a headlock and wrestling him to the ground and the other a frontal, forearm charge on Shane O’Donnell
Secondly, referees have an interest in this. For all the blessings bestowed for letting the game flow, that’s not a match official’s role. The job is to enforce the rules. Fouls disrupt matches not the awarding of frees.
At last week’s referees’ meeting that point was made and word emerged that Keenan’s performance had been critiqued. The only tool after all that referees are guaranteed to have on the field is part two of the Official Guide, the playing rules.
Before the CCCC reviewed the match, both Hayes and Duggan were arraigned on the Sunday Game. It was strange that no Limerick clips were included for balance. It’s not like there weren’t any.
For instance, Séamus Flanagan, who had a terrific match, was involved in two incidents – one, taking Cathal Malone in a headlock and wrestling him to the ground and the other a frontal, forearm charge on Shane O’Donnell. Were they not worth a look?
The CCCC presumably did review those incidents and evidently decided they didn’t merit further action. On one level, it is of course irrelevant whether other misbehaviour took place – everyone has to be responsible for their own actions but valid concerns about consistency fuel resentment.
Former referee Brian Gavin raised an interesting point in his Irish Examiner column. He was critical of the referees’ meeting for interrogating Keenan’s performance
He added: “If John is to be questioned for his excellent performance in Thurles, then there is a huge misunderstanding between what is being expected of referees by administrators and hurling people.”
That is quite likely true but do ‘hurling people’ want a game where indiscipline is rewarded and foul play unpunished? When dispassionate review suggests that up to a third of fouls went unpunished, that’s not a victimless crime.
Even if the permissiveness doesn’t benefit one side over another, there are players whose big day gets spoiled because opponents are allowed to commit random fouls on them with impunity, either through not being appropriately punished or in some cases not being penalised at all.
The only guarantee of fairness is that everyone on the field – to the best of the referee’s ability – is held accountable to the playing rules. That has to be the priority regardless of the impact on the match as a spectacle.