When rival managers declare that their respective teams have reached peak performance on their watch at different stages during the same match, you know you have witnessed something extraordinary.
The stunning nature of Limerick’s comeback in Sunday’s Munster hurling final was rooted, not in the fact that they had overturned a 10-point deficit but how quickly and ruthlessly they had done it.
The high point was Kyle Hayes’ goal – his switch from centre-forward to half-back during last year’s Munster Championship has always reaped huge rewards – but that was merely the icing on the cake when it came for a team that had already made its mark during the third quarter.
When it was put to him that it was the best they had been, manager John Kiely wasn’t going to downplay it in the manner of managers in a different code and county not too far away from them might. No, Kiely was perfectly content to acknowledge the second half for what it was, just as Liam Sheedy was content to give context to what his team had achieved in the opening 35 minutes. “As good as we’ve ever played,” Sheedy suggested.
All told, it was a magnificent spectacle applied against the level of of optimum performance from both teams in either half. How would it have worked out however if referee Paud O’Dwyer had taken the correct decision and red-carded Aaron Gillane for his wild pull across Cathal Barrett in the 37th minute after the Tipperary defender had hung on to him too long?
Limerick’s comeback was only in its infancy at that point and with Gillane back on frees and acting as a the primary outlet for deliveries to be aimed, his influence grew. But O’Dwyer produced yellow and Gillane regained his balance on the tightrope.
Even allowing for the reactionary nature of the strike, it was the wrong call and in keeping with a tendency for laissez faire refereeing that was very much in evidence over the weekend and has been since the championship commenced a few weeks back.
Particularly diluted has been the approach to head high tackles which, unintentional as they may have been, were far too prevalent over the weekend.
Two years ago, Richie Hogan was sent off in the All-Ireland final when he caught Barrett’s head with an elbow. At the time, Hogan contested it vehemently, arguing that it was never a red-card offence and the impact his absence had on the remainder of a final Tipp won easily was debated at length.
It was a big call by referee James Owens, not because there was doubt but because it was an All-Ireland final and the benefit of the doubt is more likely to be applied in this setting. But that Owens went through with it, strictly applying the letter of the law, it felt like a new benchmark had been reached. If this was the standard for head-high contact, irrespective of intent, produced in an All-Ireland final then everything would take its cue from that.
That year Tony Kelly was red-carded in the opening league match for a head high challenge on Pádraic Maher, a decision that stood when the Central Hearings Committee subsequently heard the case. It was certainly policy from the National Referees Committee that head-high challenges should be dealt with in this way “in the interests of health and safety for each player,” as then chairman of the committee Willie Barrett articulated earlier that year.
“There’s an onus on the referee to ensure that the challenge is fair and there’s a duty of care as well to your opponent,” he said.
Barrett sensed a growing belief in hurling that since helmets had become mandatory there was a greater threshold for what a head could take and thus players were willing to push the boundaries more.
Recognising the dangers of concussion has become much more prevalent in contact sport, Gaelic games among them. Rugby has got much more serious about head contact with red cards far more commonplace in the game than they once were.
The threat of ‘ruining a game’ with the removal of a player has been trumped by greater consideration for health and safety. By and large, it has been accepted by players, management and spectators that it has to be this way. They all know what the parameters are. There still remains significant resistance in hurling to head-high challenges being punishable by red cards, however, unless visible damage has been inflicted on a recipient by the contact.
Such contact is still deemed an occupational hazard, that even if it’s unintentional as the vast majority are, it’s part of a physical game and just goes with the territory. If a ball is there to be flicked away at head high level then a player is going to seek to do that, irrespective of the consequences.
But over the weekend too many head-high contacts went unpunished or weren’t punished sufficiently. Séamus Flanagan got yellow for jamming his hurl into Maher’s neck? Did that not constitute red as prescribed by Barrett? Matthew O’Hanlon on Aron Shanagher in Saturday’s qualifier between Wexford and Clare, did that not meet the same criteria?
Kilkenny’s Michael Carey met Dublin’s Cian Boland head first in Saturday’s Leinster senior final, for which he got yellow, mirroring a similar incident in the All-Ireland minor final between Kilkenny and Galway the previous week which went unpunished. Again, while these collisions are unintentional, it is contact with an opponent’s head that, if the Hogan incident in 2019 was the barometer, was punishable by red.
But once again the sands around head-high challenges in the game seem to have shifted.