Colm Keys: 'Top teams have tactical fouling down to a fine art'
Jersey-pulling and 'standing up' opponents to kill momentum endemic among the elite
Sixteen minutes into their Ulster semi-final against Donegal, Tyrone coughed up possession under pressure while on the attack, allowing Michael Langan to gather and seek to build a quick counter-attack. There wasn't a hope of it.
Pádraig Hampsey quickly smothered Langan and conceded the free, allowing Tyrone the breathing space to get numbers back and into position. Danger averted.
With perfect symmetry, six minutes later a Donegal move at the other end broke down and this time Hampsey was one of a succession of Tyrone players trying to clear their lines.
Eventually, Langan moved in and committed a subtle foul to buy those crucial seconds. It had touché written all over it and the move wasn't lost on RTÉ's co-commentator in Clones that afternoon, Kevin McStay.
"Again that foul the minute the turnover is committed. I feel strongly about this. Referees need to clamp down on it. It's very cynical," he noted.
Twice more in the half McStay would have cause to raise the very same issue. Both were committed by Donegal players, both were blatant, and both were designed to unapologetically cut off any prospect of momentum from a quick Tyrone kick-out.
On 35 minutes Colm Cavanagh received a short kick-out but as he went to turn, the formidable presence of Michael Murphy was there to halt him. Donegal, through Eoin McHugh, had just planted their seventh point.
"There's that free I was talking about again, the hold-up free," McStay observed.
When Murphy himself landed a ninth point just as time edged towards the interval, it was Patrick McBrearty's turn to kill the momentum, taking a firm hold of Michael McKernan's jersey just as he gathered possession from another Niall Morgan restart. Again McStay felt compelled to comment, so obvious was the offence, describing it as "unacceptable" and reiterating his failure to understand why referees aren't "taking control of it".
McBrearty's foul on McKernan had an impact equitable with any black-card offence - pull-down, trip, or body-check - but it is merely governed by a tick, giving rise to a great disparity and even greater frustration.
In their defence, Donegal can shrug their shoulders and say 'everyone's at it'. And they're right. They are.
Especially the top teams who, like everything else, just do it better that the rest. Anyone watching Mayo and Galway fight it out on Saturday night in Limerick saw a masterclass in it.
Mayo have had the volume turned up on the cynical overtures providing their backing tracks in recent weeks.
In a recent column, former Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice painted a vivid picture of their "gamesmanship" in his six years in charge, referencing "checking off the ball, their game management late in games, the claustrophobic marking of key opposition players, the tactical use of the maor fóirne and the cynical exploitation of the head injury rule".
In the aftermath of their one-point Round 3 qualifier defeat of Armagh, manager Kieran McGeeney hinted at "dark arts" in Castlebar, claiming treatment to 10 head injuries, a figure Mayo are likely to dispute.
In Limerick, just as with Donegal and Tyrone, Mayo and Galway barely tried to disguise their willingness to halt play when the occasion demanded it.
Darren Coen is having a magnificent season for Mayo, but when the opportunity arose on Saturday night he exploited it twice, first pulling back Antaine Ó Laoí in the 43rd minute and then 'standing up' Declan Kyne in the 63rd minute, allowing him no progress and, crucially, escaping real censure from referee Joe McQuillan.
Again it's difficult to reconcile how the punishment for that can be so different from the various black-card offences when the impact and intent is much the same.
Not to be outdone, Galway, despite chasing the game, executed their own preventative measures, with Adrian Varley's jersey pull on Paddy Durcan, just after Peter Cooke's foul on Colm Boyle, prompting Sky Sports co-commentator Paul Earley to suggest "professionalism and gamesmanship". You couldn't dispute his call.
A few years ago McGeeney, while preparing his Armagh team for an Ulster quarter-final against Donegal, suggested their opponents "weren't in the same ball park" as Dublin and Kerry when it came to hitting hard.
When it comes to fouling in the 'right' part of the field the game's protagonists have an edge too.
When Cork collated their statistics from the recent Munster final they established that Kerry conceded the vast majority of their frees in the Cork half of the field, seven out of 10. By comparison, Cork's count was 13 from 28 in the Kerry half, almost an even spread.
That Cork conceded more than double the number of frees as their opponents was another bone of contention for them that evening.
In Croke Park the following day Dublin could have got away without laying a glove on Meath and still won comfortably, but when they did, it was much more often than not in the Meath half of the field.
The official Sure statistics revealed that Dublin conceded 11 frees in Meath's half, in comparison to Meath's concession of six in the Dublin half.
Perhaps Meath players couldn't get close enough to commit the offences, but the team with the monopoly on possession would surely concede less frees in an opposing half.
When they played Clare last Sunday it was clear that Meath had absorbed the 'lessons' of that and wised up with where and how they attempted, and succeeded, to halt play when they were ahead. And again McStay was on hand to point it out.
It's a recurring theme, one which is becoming increasingly difficult to legislate for. For a start, the status of the jersey pull or 'hold' needs to be examined and upgraded when it's clearly deliberate, so too the potential for moving the ball up a considerable distance when such offences are committed in an opposing half.
It's been around for long enough now with little sign of it abating. The better teams have just got it down to a finer art.