Hurling can be physical game without being cynical one too
Reform has given football a huge lift and it can do the same for hurling
IT is too early to read the intentions of the new hurling review group formed under chairman Liam Sheedy, the members currently stroking chins ahead of a first collective meeting which will decide the terms of reference. They begin their work at a good time in many respects. The last championship might have been the best ever; the next one is probably the most anticipated. What could possibly be the problem?
Some would say: nothing. Leave hurling be. That particular constituency has applauded the group's formation and the people selected on it. Aside from Sheedy, the group contains Pat Henderson, Paul Flynn, Sambo McNaughton, Michael Duignan, Ollie Moran and Ollie Canning, a broad demographic with direct experience of hurling from every decade over the last 50 years.
Lobbying is under way. Eddie Keher has proposals he would like considered and Brian Cody has said they make a lot of sense. But support from this quarter doesn't necessarily mean support for reform, or even maintaining the status quo. Keher has called for the abolition of the card system, having declared that issuing yellow and red cards to hurlers is a “pompous” practice that can cause “humiliation” to players and their families.
Cody has often appealed for immunity from the prissy hands of reformers and regularly cites concern that hurling's essential physicality — or manliness — is being endangered. There were similar concerns expressed before the advent of the black card in Gaelic football. So far those reforms have been an outstanding success, and could be one of the most inspired rule reform changes in the history of the game. They cannot be automatically applied to hurling, a different game, but they shouldn't be ruled out as unworthy of consideration either. If a player commits a cynical foul in hurling, such as a foot trip with an opponent through on goal, then surely it is only right that he be effectively discouraged, even if it means dismissal. That is kinda the idea. If he blatantly obstructs, a black card is an effective deterrent without a team suffering unduly. That wouldn't threaten hurling's physicality in any way.
Keher's playing days preceded cards, which were introduced in 1999, and his objections seem partly generational, tied to a concern that hurling is now too officiously policed. But it is only a few years since it was loosely policed, as if each referee was sheriff of his own State. The same rules applied, as always, across the land, but they weren't being uniformly applied. Worse still, sometimes they weren't being applied at all. This inevitably led to frustration and some outcry. Referees were hauled over the coals.
Last year they were clamping down with greater force and three high-profile dismissals in the championship, with the affected team losing in each instance, prompted Keher's intervention and call for a scrapping of the card system altogether. It seems a radical position and it is. It would be extraordinary to see cards in football and not in hurling and a little pompous when you think about it for hurling to imagine this would be acceptable.
Presumably, there are football men who didn't particularly like the idea of cards being introduced to the GAA, noting the connotations with soccer and wanting to have their own way of dealing with things. Keher's sentiments are sympathetic to that mindset. Hurling doesn't need these rigours. It had its own intuitive way of dealing with things. A code of honour exists not to cross certain limits.
And, you know what, he's right: it does. But without that we'd presumably have the killing fields. From the early beginnings, hurling has evolved from a fairly wild affair into a structured game with rules and a code of discipline. There is a respect among hurlers too, unique to the game and its nature. But this code or trust is open to violation. Hurlers, no different to any other sport, will have players who push the boundaries if allowed and resort to fouling as cynical as you will find in any game. Cynical fouling has been the issue, really, not dirty play. A playing rules committee has been examining the possibility of bringing the black card into hurling too. They may leave areas like hurling development to the new group but it is clear that Keher is determined to have his proposals heard by the new group or whoever will listen. And he is entitled to do so.
If they were to consider discipline, the new group under Sheedy could learn from football's experience. The advantage rule introduced as part of football's reforms could be applied to hurling as well and this would help deal with that invidious practice plaguing hurling in recent years, systematic fouling with the free hand. This form of obstruction unfairly penalises the player abiding by rule. Often it leads to turnovers or a free awarded against the player unfairly impeded, usually for holding the ball too long. Now a referee has licence to call play back and award a free. In an All-Ireland minor semi-final, a team lost because a referee did not enforce the rules.
The rules existed to deal with situations back then but referees were too chicken, or pompous, to apply them. The mantra of letting the hurling flow took hold. Flow needs to be encouraged because it is what makes hurling, or any sport, an engrossing spectacle but not at any cost, not if it means fouling is routinely ignored. Referees have, in the main, cottoned on to that by now. But there are still a few mavericks trying to do it their own way.
As for yellow and red cards, they look set to stay because they offer clear signals of the penalty being meted out and lessen confusion. There will always be occasions when a yellow or red card will be unfair or harsh but removing cards will not remove that human failing. In the 1995 All-Ireland football final, the card system might have prevented the farce that ensued when Charlie Redmond stayed on the field long after Paddy Russell had sent him off. Redmond claimed to have misread the signal.
Hurling has undergone tremendous changes since Keher retired in 1977. For a good part of his career the third-man tackle existed and provided for unruly goalmouth scenes. They went with rule change and the game carried on. A relentless physicality obtained in Keher's day. You had to be a hard nut to survive, it became ingrained. Talking to Keith Duggan in The Lifelong Season, Len Gaynor gave a compelling account of life in the 1960s as an inter-county hurler.
“It was a different game. Lads weren't as fit and you could be sure your man would be a lot closer to you than is the case now. You had to be brave. If you showed any type of cowardice at all, you were gone . . . you just couldn't show the white feather.”
Anyone who has had the pleasure of playing hurling will probably agree that driving someone out of the way with a legitimate hit is as pleasurable in its own primal way as executing a crucial hook or landing a big score. It would not be the game it is without that essential physicality. It can be physical but it cannot be cynical, it is important we don't confuse the two.
In Cork last Sunday, the footballers of Tyrone were sitting on an early lead when Paul Kerrigan picked up a ball out near the sideline not far from the halfway line. From where Kerrigan started, a stack of Tyrone players stood between him and the opposing goal; you'd have got good odds on him raising a green flag. Off he took. Sean Cavanagh comes into view off his shoulder at one point. What is noticeable is that Cavanagh, struggling to halt Kerrigan, doesn't resort to a foul. Nor do any of the other Tyrone players who enter Kerrigan's space. A wonderful goal resulted. A year ago, Kerrigan would have been fouled en route; there is absolutely no question about that. There are countess other examples from this year’s league of football's renaissance. Players are still allowed tackle and be physical but war has been declared on cynical play and people are starting to fall in love with football again. The game might even be winning over a few converts.
At the start of the league last year Tyrone and Down met at Newry. The fouling was constant, whether lazy or deliberate, or even deliberately lazy. It began from the short kick-outs, the corner-forward would pull back the corner-back and concede the free. There was nothing reasonably honest in that practice. There was nothing in its riddance that made the game less appealing or less manly. Quite the opposite. It forced players to play according to the rules and rely on skill rather than cynicism to gain advantage. The football league has been a revelation. The summer, for all the usual foreboding, will be too.
And hurling is already there, at the summit of its popularity. But no sport can be smug or think it is above reform. Not even hurling.