Why don’t they leave hurling alone? It was grand the way it was. These sentiments are in essence the response of many hurling followers to the sort of measures advocated in recent years to combat indiscipline and foul play.
Could they possibly be right? Well, let’s see.
On Sunday such a measure caused a furore when Clare’s encouraging display was derailed by the referee’s intervention but problems have been brewing for a while.
In January 2020 at the annual GAA coaching conference, David Hassan, chair of the Standing Committee on the Playing Rules produced some research to substantiate the case for introducing a black card in hurling – modelled on football's similar provision of 10 minutes in the sin bin for a player committing one of a specified list of fouls, deemed to involve the calculated or cynical attempt to stop an opponent playing.
Data showed that 48 per cent of fouls in the 2019 hurling championship had come into the category of “cynical” or “disruptive” conduct. That figure included 29 per cent ‘professional fouls,’ “where no attempt was made to fairly win back possession”.
Despite this, the black card was summarily dismissed with just 18 per cent of delegates in favour. Opposition wasn’t so evidence-based and relied on the assertion that hurling didn’t have football’s disciplinary problems – something Hassan had flatly contradicted.
More recent figures, based on the 2020 championship last winter, indicate that the increase in fouling has continued apace in hurling, rising year-on-year 2017-20, to nearly 30 per match or about 27 per cent up on 2017. Maybe last year was an outlier because fouling could be more prevalent in poor weather but the trend is clear.
This need to address cynical play in hurling in a manner that didn't offend the game's devotees had consequences
Warned by experience to loosen the connection between punishing cynical play and being seen to follow football, the SCPR came up with proposals on cynical play, framed around the scenario in which a goalscoring opportunity within the 20-metre line or its arc, is denied by three types of foul: pulling an opponent down, tripping him or careless use of the hurl.
The punishment would be a sin-binning for 10 minutes, a penalty and a yellow card. Although the focus was virtually entirely on hurling the same rule was proposed for football – to be triggered by the black card. Congress last February agreed to proceed with a trial of the rule in this year's championship.
This need to address cynical play in hurling in a manner that didn’t offend the game’s devotees had consequences. First, there is the absurdity, pithily summarised by former All-Ireland referee Barry Kelly on these pages earlier this week.
“Of course we don’t do black cards in hurling – except we do but it’s called yellow.”
The obvious solution would have been to align football and hurling (gasp!) with a black card, applicable in any area of the field.
So what about Sunday?
The first question is whether the rule on "denying a goalscoring opportunity" is desirable. Clare manager Brian Lohan, although fuming about the decision, separated the rule and its application.
“I’ve no problem with the rule but you expect that the referee would be able to interpret the rule properly.”
Aidan McCarthy, who was sin-binned, looked to have suffered a rush of blood. The incident came just after he had brilliantly dispossessed Morris and hand-passed to Paul Flanagan only for the Tipp player to block the attempted clearance and deftly dribble the ball into the danger zone.
McCarthy, seeing what has happened, throws himself at Morris hoping to get his stick to the ball but instead torpedoing his opponent, both tripping him and using the hurl carelessly.
It's fair to say that the consensus has been that referee James Owens made a mistake and that Jake Morris hadn't been deprived of a goalscoring opportunity as he was too far out on the wing. The consensus that matters, however, is that which emerges from Thursday night's referees' gathering to review the first two weeks of the championship.
One strong consensus, on both sides of the substantive issue, is that the workload for hurling referees is now very demanding – possibly too heavy
Their deliberations are likely to be more nuanced than the public debate. It remains, for instance, a grey area – in that policy hasn’t been fully developed yet – the extent to which the goalscoring opportunity need not be the player fouled.
Pat Daly, the GAA's director of organisational culture, planning, and development, is a veteran in the fight against indiscipline in the games and he told The Irish Times last January:
“Goal scoring opportunity doesn’t necessarily lie exclusively with the guy who is in possession. It’s not as straightforward as people might think. For instance a player running towards goal is rugby tackled and there’s a guy inside unmarked.”
Owens will tell the meeting of his colleagues what he saw at the time and what guided his action. It may be on review that he thinks he was mistaken or it may be that he has a forceful explanation in defence of his decision.
One strong consensus, on both sides of the substantive issue, is that the workload for hurling referees is now very demanding – possibly too heavy. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic restrictions.
In a normal year referees would have had the opportunity to officiate at pre-season competitions like the Walsh Cup, Fitzgibbon Cup matches involving the third-level colleges and a full league programme, none of which has been possible.
They are as a result learning on the job. There may also be the lesson that in the circumstances – it is hoped never to be repeated – of this season’s squeezed calendar, it might have been as advisable to defer implementation until a full season’s activity was available to trial the rule properly and fairly for all concerned.