Thursday 19 September 2019

David Kelly: 'As the last bastion of manliness, hurling must bow to peril of head collisions'

Cathal Barrett of Tipperary is tackled by Richie Hogan of Kilkenny, resulting in a red card for Hogan in last Sunday's All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Cathal Barrett of Tipperary is tackled by Richie Hogan of Kilkenny, resulting in a red card for Hogan in last Sunday's All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

The game's gone soft. It's a familiar lament, heard in all four corners of the world from those of a certain vintage; a plaintive plea which doesn't discriminate between the shape or size of the ball.

The chorus was poised and prepared to spring into full voice on All-Ireland Hurling Sunday, the steaming injustice of Richie Hogan's red card an apparent affront to the manly bravado of the national game.

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A variety of pundits across sundry media outlets were reduced to slithering equivocation even if the rules of the game, one they now no longer play, invited no other decision than that ultimately made by referee James Owens.

Brian Cody, who played in a predominantly helmetless - and occasionally shoes-and-sock-less era - cast doubt on the controversial decision, seemingly because the person making it had taken both time and counsel before doing so.

One might humbly admit that this is precisely how all justice should be administered, in a cool and calculated manner, isolated from the urgent pace of the actions that precede an incident, and the sound and fury that may inevitably follow.

Opinions still matter, of course, but the combined substance of character reference - "Sure he's a lovely fella, feeds the swans every morning" - paraded alongside the evasion of time and place - "Does the ref not know this is a final?" - should matter not a jot.

Other opinions, whether divining a lack of malice, aforethought or otherwise, to evoking the absence of ambulance sirens for the afflicted are also just as irrelevant.

Accident and intent must now be removed from judgement. So too, outcome.

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Just as Richie Hogan must decide whether it was really necessary for him to attempt the tackle in the manner that he did, so too must Owens review whether he had any alternative but to show red.

Just like Hogan, he too is subject to a higher power; it would be interesting to eavesdrop on the conversation with his assessment panel had he declined to issue a red card merely because he thought it might "ruin" an All-Ireland final.

Of course, one must empathise. A momentary lapse in judgement or technique or motion, without intent, can end a game at any moment, a reckless slip letting down team-mates and supporters.

Except why so much sympathy for the stricken player rather than the player struck?

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody was critical of Richie Hogan's red card. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody was critical of Richie Hogan's red card. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

This is the moral tussle that must now be endured by hurling, the last bastion of manliness, just as Gaelic football and both rugby codes, soccer and so many more sports have done before them.

In this instance, as in life, that one might disagree with a culture change - and I don't - is not the point. The point is that the culture must be changed. Anyone with even the vaguest recollection of Donegal dynamo Ryan McHugh's history of concussions could hardly moan that remedial action was necessary.

Other sports have had to take the same steps; some, like rugby union, left it far too late.

So hurling's difficulty is not an isolated one and not simply confined to the inadequate and mealy-mouthed responses of coaches, players and pundits.

Inconsistent refereeing is a universal obstacle and, even a few months after referees chief Willie Barrett attempted to clarify the proposals he had outlined earlier in the year, the variations have been so wide that even Henry Shefflin's 'Sunday Game' stance gains a semblance of credence.

Show him a video of Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan crashing into Paddy Andrews in Croke Park last spring and the 'King' might insist that the yellow decided upon in that jaw-breaking instant perhaps justifies his stubbornness.

The GAA can only offer their sports a path forward - players, coaches and referees must all walk it together.

The chief responsibility lies with them to implement this particular culture change which, rather than turning the game "soft", will actually encourage other physical aspects of the sport to flourish.

The GAA must stand firm as there will be calls to change the sanction for the crime, even if not the crime itself.

Their instinct, a correct one, that everything that can be done must be done to limit the potential catastrophe of concussion, has to take precedence over the instinct of the player who occasionally steps over the edge.

The game will indeed soon be gone, not soft, but to a better place.

Irish Independent

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