Cynicism alive and well as teams adapt to black peril
Last Sunday's Ulster final was less than a minute old when Monaghan's Kieran Hughes leaped to catch his brother Darren's speculative delivery and move back out the field to look for support.
Outside him Conor McManus was struggling to break free from his marker Neil McGee's grip. The ball was nowhere near him but, as he moved one way and then another, McGee continued to illegally block his opponent's route off the ball. Monaghan's chief marksman wasn't getting space this time. Eventually he went to ground and was awarded a free.
The ball never made it into McManus' grasp yet the free was given to him. Could it have been deemed a body check if his run was blocked and thus a black card awarded?
Later in the game, Monaghan's Colin Walshe and Donegal's Karl Lacey collided after Lacey had offloaded and pressed on. Neither player were too bothered about stepping out of each other's way.
The absence of contact in the Leinster final didn't deter opponents from running across each other's path to disrupt their runs when the occasion demanded it. There was subtlety to it. Both games were peppered with little spikey collisions off the ball that went unnoticed and unchecked.
Last weekend was the first in 10 since the championship started where no black card was shown. Four games, eight teams, yet not one offence over more than 280 minutes of action in two provincial finals and two qualifiers was deemed worthy of black.
Could it be possible that teams have discovered how to refine the difficult art of tackling or is it a case that, as weaker counties leave the championship, the numbers drop?
But the suspicion that the rescinding of three black cards on the one night earlier in the month for Monaghan pair Conor McManus and Darren Hughes and Tyrone's Darren McCurry has forced referees to err much more on the side of caution can't be ignored either. It was a disastrous night for the new penalty which has shaken confidence in its implementation.
Since that decision was made almost three weeks ago by the Central Hearings Committee the number of black cards issued has risen by just 10, despite the volume increase in games.
Just when the stakes are getting higher and the intense nature of the game is increasing, which should theoretically lead to an increase in the numeracy of cynical incidents that merit the new punishment, the black card appears to be fading into the background.
The profile of counties who have not contributed to the 40 black cards (according to Irish Independent match reports) over the first nine weekends of action is interesting.
In four provincial finals there was just one black card dished out to Mayo's Barry Moran, for which he could have no argument after dragging down Shane Walsh and conceding a penalty subsequently saved by Robbie Hennelly.
Of the four provincial champions only Mayo have picked up a black card. Dublin, who went through nine league and now three championship games, have yet to have a player black carded in a competitive match. Kerry and Donegal are also clear.
Of the teams that played Division 1 league football this year only Kildare, Derry and Tyrone have picked up five blacks between them.
Galway, Meath and Cork are among the 14 counties who have yet to pick up a black card. Laois and Armagh have picked up the most black cards, five each, but have played the most games, also five each.
Waterford, Cavan, Clare and Louth have three each with Antrim, Kildare and Derry on two each.
Inevitably the majority of black cards are being issued in the last 10 minutes and in injury-time.
Including the three rescinded blacks, 21 of the 43 issued have come in that final stretch.
The Ulster championship has produced the most black cards of the four provinces, 12 in all excluding the three that were rescinded, an average of 1.2 per game.
The national average is exactly the same as it was during the league, 0.8 per game. The 10 games in the Leinster championship have only produced two black cards but there have been 17 in the 20 games in the qualifiers. Munster's five games have produced seven, surpassing the average in Ulster.
Statistically the advent of the black card has continued to increase scoring returns but not at the rate that was seen during the league.
From year to year the average scoring return in a league game jumped from 29.36 to 32.77, an increase of more than three points per game.
But in the 50 championship games played so far the average rate of return for a game is just under two points higher than 2013 when 52 games (including replays) were played to this stage (provincial championships and third round qualifiers), rising from 31.9 to 33.83 per game.
The jury is very much still out on its impact. Scoring is higher and blatant pull downs have become rare, generally only in cases of desperation.
But teams are adapting and referees appear to be somewhat more reluctant as the season rolls on.
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