Brian Cody's status in hurling means that his opinions are very difficult to challenge, writes Dermot Crowe
YOUR name is Anthony Cunningham, this is your first year in charge of the Galway senior hurling team and here, in a school in Loughrea of an autumn day, is your first All-Ireland final media night. Your first question will be along any moment now. It's seven years since Galway reached a final but the first question has more to do with the nitty-gritty than the bells and whistles. Refereeing. You have to talk about the referee. Because Brian Cody has talked about the referee. And he has talked about the referee many times before.
"I didn't see the comments," you respond, somewhat implausibly, "we don't follow the press that closely because we're busy training."
Hmmm. Anyway, you go on: "The games Kilkenny have been involved in, winning eight All-Ireland titles since 2000, those have been fantastic spectacles. There hasn't been any mean play, any dirty play, they play it hard and they play it fair and I don't think it'll be any different the next day."
They watch to see if your nose has grown in the length of time it took you to compose those last few sentences. You can hardly state the opposite, true enough, but compare that bit of diplomacy with the observations of your Kilkenny counterpart.
Asked if he thought Barry Kelly might be unduly influenced by reaction to Cathal McAllister's lenient handling of the recent semi-final, Cody let fly. "I do absolutely. I think there could be a stupid reaction now. The last three All-Ireland finals were played and the game was let flow. They were outstanding games. Suddenly, there could be this crazy reaction to a couple of instances from last Sunday which should have been dealt with last Sunday, not in two weeks' time. And suddenly: yellow card, red card for nothing."
Red card for nothing. As if.
But Brian Cody says it and people take stock. He's good at it, peddling the line that he's for the greater good. Referees, rule-makers, rule enforcers, they've all heard it before. Usually this is either in the form of an outburst against the latest package of experimental rule changes, or when voicing his concerns about referees being too soft and squeamish. You can argue that this is genuine concern for hurling, you may argue that it is cynical manipulation, but he is no fool -- he does not comment lightly.
It is hard to think of a more powerful and influential voice in hurling now than Brian Cody so his words may not win friends but they can certainly influence people. This is not entirely his fault. Part of the problem with Cody's addresses to the nation, and the dire warnings that we are legislating beyond our means, is that he is now virtually a sole voice. There is nobody, it seems, in the game or in administration, willing to or capable of challenging him. To keep him in check. Ger Loughnane, perhaps, at one stage. Who else? If we're all essentially passengers on the same hurling bus who is in charge of the wheel?
A playing rules committee established by former GAA president Christy Cooney includes Cody and Dónal óg Cusack, among others, but all the ideas it generated for reform have been football ones. And it has met irregularly. Cody is repeatedly on the record saying hurling needs no reform -- he was an unusual choice for a committee like that. He is also a vested interest. So where is the debate? If hurling has a problem with refereeing, be it too lenient or too officious, then who is looking after the game's welfare in an objective way? And why don't we hear more from them?
Some exception might be made for Cusack who recently penned a column highlighting one of the scourges of contemporary hurling, the illegal use of the free arm. This has, through evolution or design, become a salient feature of Kilkenny defensive play and has its roots in the pivotal 2006 All-Ireland win over Cork, when Cody's own future hinged on the game's outcome.
Having failed in the two previous years, they went back to the top through an insatiable hunger and a game plan plagiarised from the Gaelic football coaching manuals. Crowding tactics were unheard of in hurling. Kilkenny changed all that and with the crowding came the fouling, the spare hand now a useful tool in stalling an opponent and forcing turnovers. Only now does it appear that there is a wider and fuller awareness of how this is poisoning the game; it is now employed by virtually all teams, to some degree, inevitably. Gaelic football has long had disciplinary issues and hurling has them too in spite of what the game's most successful manager might say.
Witness his recent line on players squaring up off the ball. "The shenanigans, call it what it you like -- it's stupidity, we certainly don't encourage it -- (but) a fella goes out and there is tension, it's a big day, a big match, the game is on. He goes past a fella and they brush off each other and there is a jostle. That's not the end of the world is it?
"But when it goes beyond that, it become dirty, by all means . . . But what I'm saying is that if the referee is going to start producing cards for that sort of thing, the stupidity at the start of the game, then it become messy."
This is an ambiguous line -- it leaves much room for interpretation as to what is acceptable and what is not. The rules are pretty clear and unambiguous and so are the penalties. Barry Kelly presumably knows that much and doesn't require distracting noises in the week of a major appointment like this one.
Cody also commented on protecting the game's physicality before this year's league final against Cork. James McGrath, the match referee, allowed much foul play go unchecked. It is estimated that around 30 fouls went unpunished, and of those, Kilkenny benefited two-to-one.
There have been stark and hellish pronouncements in the past from Cody. In 2005, he said hurling would die within 12 months if experimental rules introduced at the time in the Walsh Cup were made permanent. Imagine the impact that had on the reforms' prospects with the majority voting being of a football disposition and less capable of making an informed decision.
Two years later, he described the system of referee assessors as "lunacy", commenting: "I'm not sure what it's got to do with discipline at all and I'm not criticising the referees, no way. I don't understand the whole thing. But what I do know for certain is that there are assessors in the stands screwing referees."
During the 2005 experimental phase, after a league match, he remarked. "The new rules are a disgrace. We have been asked to give them a chance but I can't do that because it's clear that they are ruining hurling. James Ryall and JJ Delaney were sent off today and neither of them have a clue why and, to be honest, neither have I."
And before that year's league final, appealing for " common sense" from the match officials, he had this to say. "The reality of the league as it panned out is that some referees started to drift back to the old rules as much as they possibly could. I just hope, that in Monday's final, common sense will prevail as well. The new rules weren't even brought to Congress for ratification and we just washed our hands of them essentially. It would be a shame if yellow cards were to be flashed next Monday for very technical and minor offences."
In April 2009, on another batch of experimental rules introduced in hurling, he opined: "I would prefer if it was left as it was. I don't think there was any problem in the game. It's a shame to see a fella get a yellow card after five minutes of a game. It could happen in a Leinster or Munster final or an All-Ireland semi-final or final, for what may be a clumsy challenge. I don't think players go out to do any any kind of stupid dirt. They are honest players. There is no dirt in the game as far as I'm concerned."
That summer Kilkenny met Galway in the Leinster championship in Tullamore. Tommy Walsh, already on a yellow card for pulling across Damien Hayes' hand, wasn't sent off when soon after he dragged down Andy Smith as he closed in on goal. Cody's view: "I don't know, there seemingly was a lot of talk about that. I would say for certain if that happened out the field it wouldn't have been a free. I saw several examples of it happening throughout the field and it wasn't a free. If referees are allowed to officiate the thing in the spirit of the game then it makes for great games. I think the lasting thing from the Galway match and from the Tipperary league final as well is the sheer, absolute brilliance of both games. It's a physical game -- you can't say it's a man's game because people start talking about 'what's a man's game?' But it was all very genuine, all very honest."
After winning the All-Ireland that year, when loose refereeing attracted much attention, Cody again became animated by a familiar subject. "I had listened to an awful lot of rubbish in the build-up to the game about refs, what they should watch Kilkenny do and don't do. The reality is that there is an agenda there the whole time for the past while about influencing referees against Kilkenny. The Tommy Walsh witch-hunt went on and Tommy Walsh rose above everything and proved the kind of player he is."
He added: "After keeping my mouth shut about it and to be in pretty good form after winning four-in-a- row, to go in (to the interview) and listen again about referees . . ."
This was the famous interview moment with Marty Morrissey, following a perfectly fair question in the circumstances of a controversial decision that swung an All-Ireland. It was ironic that his beef was about having to listen to questions about referees. Because for the last seven years nobody has talked as much about them.