Martin Breheny: Sort out this black card mess or season will be a farce
That didn't take long, now did it? We haven't yet seen May out and already the All-Ireland championships have refereeing trouble.
Black card, white-knuckle anger, red alert. If that wasn't enough to stir the controversy pot, added spice has been tossed in after the discovery of yet another loophole in the rules.
It emerged during the Down-Tyrone game last Sunday week when referee David Coldrick brought forward a Tyrone '45' after an opponent stood too close to Niall Morgan as he lined up the kick.
Morgan galloped back to his goal and Seán Cavanagh hoisted the free over the bar. Right at the end, Coldrick changed a Tyrone sideline to a free closer to goal after Cavanagh was fouled off the ball. Tyrone had no chance of scoring directly from the sideline but the odds changed substantially when the free was awarded closer in.
Cavanagh pointed it, earning Tyrone a draw, and they went on to win the replay last Saturday.
Question is: was Coldrick wrong to bring forward the '45' and turn a sideline kick into a free, decisions which helped Tyrone to save the day? In terms of logic, yes, since two Down offences were punished but, under the strict letter of the law, the situation is far less clear.
Indeed, referees – past and present – are divided on the issue, with some arguing that Coldrick was within his rights to punish Down infringements as he did, while others remain adamant that the rules don't allow the ball to be brought forward off '45s' or sideline kicks.
The rule book is no help since, quite like in a few other situations, it's open to alternate interpretations. The rules gurus urgently need to look at this one and issue a clear instruction to referees. For what it's worth, I back Coldrick's stance, since it punishes offenders who know exactly what they're doing.
His interpretation of the black card rule, which also impacted significantly on the Down-Tyrone game, is a different story. Indeed, the black card is becoming one of the early stories of the championship and while that was always likely to be the case, the signs are ominous as to how it will work out for the rest of the season.
The basis for its introduction was the personification of logic, designed as an antidote to cynical play.
The theory is that only those guilty of deliberate fouling need worry about the black card but, of course, it's not that simple because the referee has to decide between intentional and accidental offences.
We're back to interpretation again and, so far, consistency is not having a good season. Other than awarding a penalty, Coldrick took no action against Down's Conor Maginn, who later scored a goal, when he floored Mark Donnelly last Sunday week, yet he black-carded Tyrone goalkeeper Morgan for a similar offence.
Why the difference? Mickey Harte complained about lack of consistency and earned an undeserved rebuke from GAA president Liam O'Neill.
Harte had made similar claims after the league game against Dublin in early April, having had full-back Ronan McNamee black-carded by Marty Duffy early on.
Later, Tyrone's Shay McGuigan was hauled down in the square by Dublin goalkeeper Seán Currie, who conceded a penalty but wasn't black-carded.
"We're looking for consistency – have you seen it there today?" said a frustrated Harte. He had a solid case, just as he had after last week's clash with Down.
Joe McQuillan wasn't in black (or yellow) card mood during the Derry-Donegal game last Sunday, allowing quite a few heavy challenges to escape either censure.
Rightly, referees will always give the benefit of the doubt in a borderline situation, but that's altogether different from a lack of consistency. Opponents of the black card argued from the start that there would be variations in how referees applied it, leading to widespread frustration.
There was evidence to support that view in the league but the real test was always going to arrive in the championship. Now, referees have been summoned to a meeting to address issues arising from the early rounds of the championship.
Presumably, adopting a more consistent approach to the black card will be top of the agenda because, unless it's sorted out quickly, the potential benefit from a sensible rule will be lost in a blizzard of complaints and recriminations.
Nobody cares about 'squeezed middle'
Antrim manager Kevin Ryan is right to complain about the hectic schedule which sees the Ulstermen and Laois facing Wexford and Galway respectively in next Sunday's Leinster hurling quarter-finals – just one week after completing the round robin series.
Laois will be playing their fifth championship game over successive weekends, while Antrim are facing their fifth game in six weekends. It's a programme that the top hurling empires would never be presented with, so why hoist it on the so-called weaker counties (Westmeath, Carlow and London were also in the round robin)?
It's easy to blame the Leinster Council or Croke Park, but actually it has nothing to do with the fixtures authorities in either administration. The All-Ireland championship format was decided by a large majority at Congress last year, so responsibility rests with the many counties who voted it in.
The truth is that the major hurling powers don't care a damn about those struggling to reach their level, while the many lower-tier counties in Ulster and Connacht, in particular, care even less about the squeezed middle. Hence the decision to shoehorn four Leinster qualifier rounds over five weekends, followed by immediate entry to the quarter-finals for the top two. Fair and equitable it sure ain't.
Higgins an unsung dual hero
His high profile, plus the likelihood of Cork being serious challengers for All-Ireland glory in football and hurling this year, ensured that Aidan Walsh's decision to double up received plenty of attention, both when he announced it and when he played his first senior hurling championship game last Sunday.
Mayo's Keith Higgins plies his hurling trade in less glamorous surroundings, which makes his dedication to the county cause all the more praiseworthy.
It would be easy for Higgins to concentrate on football only, but instead he continues to combine the two codes when possible.
He played a key role last weekend as Mayo ignored their underdog rating when beating Wicklow in the Christy Ring Cup quarter-final, a win that takes them into the semi-final against Kerry in Castlebar on Saturday.
The final is fixed for Saturday week, a day before Mayo play Roscommon in the Connacht SF semi-final, which would leave Higgins (left) in a difficult position.