LAST Sunday, Conor Counihan found himself lamenting the state of Gaelic football when he should have been hailing his side's win over Kerry.
The Cork manager couldn't fathom the number of frees awarded during the 70 minutes. With Cork benefiting from the free count (they received 35 to Kerry's 22), Counihan could have put his head in the sand. But seven yellow cards, two reds and 57 frees in a game that was open and enjoyable? Little wonder he spoke up.
Each season seems to start with officials cracking down on one area before subsequently allowing it fade out as the weeks pass. Last spring, the handpass infuriated managers and players alike before it was virtually ignored for the summer. This year, it looks like the tackle will prove to be a real bone of contention.
"It's very difficult to tackle now which is frustrating, especially for defenders," Counihan said. "The element of common sense doesn't seem to be there. You have to look at the intent in a tackle. If it's reckless, it deserves to be punished, but if a player is making a genuine attempt to play the ball, it should be taken into consideration."
Take the first half, when 27 frees were awarded, not far off one per minute. Imagine trying to play in those conditions. Kerry and Cork are probably the two best teams in the country, packed with enough quality to rise above such stop-start fare to still produce a decent spectacle, but most other counties would just get bogged down by it all.
After Down's opener against Mayo last Saturday evening, Martin Clarke hinted in his newspaper column that he was beginning to miss Australia. Each time he went to make a tackle in that match, he was penalised. "I gave away five free kicks in the tackle," he wrote. "Two resulted in Mayo points. They'd have been five commendable plays if I'd been out on the MCG."
Some managers recently voiced concerns over the irregularities with the tackle, but it doesn't seem to have made any difference. "The question of intent is the key to me in any tackle. If the guy is reckless, yes, he deserves to be booked," Counihan adds. "But with the way referees are at the minute, and we discussed this at the pre-season meeting, it's very difficult to tackle."
Last Sunday, Micheál McDermott's Clare side lost by a point to Leitrim, finishing the game with 13 men after referee Shaun McLaughlin of Donegal brandished 10 yellow cards in total and handed straight reds to Clare duo Gordon Kelly and David Tubridy. Most of the bookings were for attempted tackling.
"Every game in Division 4 is like a championship game and it just wasn't good enough," the Clare boss says. "Teams in Divisions 1, 2 and 3 are often happy with consolidation or stabilisation, but almost every team in Division 4 targets promotion. And if you lose two games it can be enough to stop you. But even though Division 4 is so competitive, all we seem to get are inexperienced referees, new guys starting out.
"It shows a complete lack of respect for teams in this division. Like, we played four McGrath Cup games in the run-up to the league and not once were we pulled for an illegal handpass or poor tackle. Yet, come the first round of the league we're blown for handpassing eight times. And any time we went to tackle we seemed to have a guy booked. What's going on?"
On the face of it, there appears to be no such thing as a defined tackle. Go into a challenge side-on and you'll get away with most things. Slap the ball out of an opponent's hand and that's fine provided it's not a high approach. Technically, you can't push an opponent in the chest -- you might be blown for it one day but it could be ignored the next.
After that, anything goes. And the referee's job is even harder because players are increasingly manufacturing fouls and grabbing jerseys as they fall.
With the current freeze on further rule experiments, it could be 2015 before this problem gets sorted. But these anomalies need attention now. Central Council, therefore, should remove that static five-year directive because the alternative is unacceptable to players and officials.
It won't come as a shock to the GAA that managers are unhappy; the writing has been on the wall for some time. Two weeks before the start of the league, Kieran McGeeney's Kildare beat Louth in the O'Byrne Cup final but immediately afterwards he pointed to the tackling problem. McGeeney said that it was "now beyond him". Again, McGeeney's men conceded a whopping 18 frees in the first half alone because of their tackling.
"I've made a point that I wasn't going to comment on referees, because everyone says I'm too hard on them," McGeeney says. "But the tackle is something we can't work any harder on. We bring referees in to tell us what we are doing at training is correct. Then we do it in games and it's not correct. It's beyond me now. You hit a brick wall a lot of times and that's one area. But I've a thick head and I'll keep running into them."
A clear definition would help, with each player given one chance before they are ticked. As it stands, the nature of a tackle can vary with the referee in charge and the type of game he allows. The GAA have frequently changed playing rules but still haven't properly examined or streamlined this matter. They can ignore a growing crisis, hope that the issue dies down during spring, or be proactive and make a grey area more clear-cut.
Sunday Indo Sport