Comment: Kildare pay a heavy price but too many players are ignoring benefits of wearing a mouth guard
Just before throw in for Sunday's bottom-of-the-table Allianz Division 1 clash between Donegal and Kildare in Ballyshannon, spectators present may have noticed two of those waiting to contest it turning and running to their respective dug-outs before making their way back to the middle of the pitch.
Their mission was simple, to retrieve mouth guards and fit them in order to comply with the direction of referee David Gough who had noticed, just as he was about to start the game, that the players in question weren't wearing them. It's a common sight, though not often picked up on.
For Gough, like his refereeing colleagues, the beginning of the game is one of the few opportunities for detection before he and the players immerse themselves in the play.
But within five minutes Gough was reaching for his notebook and writing in Kevin Feely's details to issue him with a yellow card.
Feely was one of the two players directed to put in their mouth guards at the start and now, having failed to comply, his name was in the book. Therein lies the distinction.
You can't be yellow-carded for not wearing a mouth guard but you can be yellow-carded for failing to comply with a direction from a referee to put one in.
Despite the obvious benefits to wearing one, many players still choose not to.
The GAA's Games Administration and National Match Officials manager Pat Doherty was on the sideline during the recent All-Ireland club junior and intermediate finals in Croke Park and estimated that up to 10 players may have been advised to put in their mouth guards by the officials in charge.
Most reached down and picked them out of their socks, some ran for the sideline.
But for the first time - certainly at inter-county level - since the rule that made mouth guards a compulsory item was introduced - a player has now been sent off as a consequence of complying with a direction to wear one.
Eoin Doyle's first 'mistake' was to challenge a decision made by Gough without thinking to put his guard in first. Most players will reach for their sock before such a challenge is made.
On noticing the guard was out, Gough ordered Doyle already on a yellow card, to comply immediately, issuing the instruction repeatedly.
But in the meantime, Doyle went to gather a kick-out from Mark Donnellan and for Gough that was failure to comply, resulting in a second yellow card.
To some it was harsh, to O'Neill it was a "disgrace" as he laid out the case for Doyle, claiming that, having had it knocked out in a challenge, he was on his way to the sideline when he instinctively went to collect the kick-out. Gough clearly saw it differently.
Gough routinely directs players to put in their mouth guards at inter-county and club level.
It's not easy for an official to detect those without them and with their growing list of responsibilities in recent years stretching to black card offences, identifying marks, judging advantage time and now judging if kick-outs have crossed the 20-metre line, seeking out those minus mouth guards is not work they actively seek.
But there's a duty of care there first and foremost and also an obligation to apply a rule that has been passed for good reason.
Without a mouth guard in, any subsequent insurance claim will not stand up and players, or their county boards, end up paying for the repair work themselves.
The Irish Dentists Association were particularly vocal on this issue when the rule first came in.
When it was introduced for underage players in 2013, there was, according to data produced by the GAA's Medical, Scientific and Welfare Committee for the recent Player Welfare conference, a 37 per cent drop in the number of dental claims, within the first year and a 39 per cent drop among adults in the 12 months following its 2014 introduction.
It has become routine practice at underage level for reminders to bring and wear mouth guards to be issued. Not everyone is comfortable with it but the benefits outweigh that in the long run.
As for O'Neill's contention that the game should be held up to allow players to go to the sideline to retrieve one of only two pieces of equipment/apparel required by rule, how practical would that be?
The onus is on the player to wear them. If they don't and are then directed to wear one and don't have one in their possession, why should everyone else have to stop as he removes himself from the field of play?
It doesn't happen for broken laces being replaced or for gloves to be collected on a sideline when it begins to rain, so why this?
The price may ultimately be heavy for Kildare as Doyle is so central to them and Ballyshannon was a lost opportunity for a team who had been so close to a first win in the division in their previous two outings against Monaghan and Tyrone. But Gough has inadvertently done the game a favour with the way this has come to the fore now.
The usual 'common sense' sound bites will be thrown in his direction over this one. But common sense would be to wear mouth guards in the first place surely?
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