Christy O'Connor: Letting the game run ... into trouble
Failure to punish serious foul play is destroying hurling’s image. ChristyO’Connorexplains why a laissez-faire attitude from fans and officials is failing to protect players
When the 12 top inter-county hurling referees met with the GAA's National Referees Committee (NRC) in Croke Park three weeks ago, Pat McEnaney didn't just tell the referees what was on his mind -- he showed them.
After delivering his initial address, McEnaney went through TV clips of eight incidents during this year's hurling championship, which he felt were clear red-card offences.
In the resultant discussion and feedback, none of the referees involved in those games disagreed with McEnaney's claims.
During the championship, there were just two straight red cards issued. Five other players were sent off for second yellow cards. However, a number of high-profile yellow card offences were stonewall straight reds.
"We want the games refereed properly," says former inter-county referee and NRC member Willie Barrett. "We don't want a yellow card for an aggressive foul. If a player strikes another player with the hurley, it's a red card. That's it.
"To be fair to players, they will abide by the rules as the rules are applied. And it's up to the referees to apply the rules in the game."
Given the increased physicality and power in hurling over the last number of years, the game has become far harder to officiate.
However, some referees have privately admitted to allowing too much to go unpunished at the elite level because that is how players, managers and supporters want the games refereed.
Yet that doesn't excuse some referees making up their own rules in certain big matches. Players need to know that every game will be played under the same set of rules.
In one of the most insightful articles written on hurling in recent years, Donal Og Cusack addressed a number of those issues in his 'On the Line' column in August.
"When we talk about hurling these days we spend a huge amount of time speaking about 'physicality'," wrote the Cork goalkeeper.
"Players are judged on whether they can stand up to that physicality. And the point is that there is actually no point in having the discussion. The game is what it is until the GAA looks at it and decides that the rule book needs to be dusted down.
"To me there's nothing manly about some of the dark arts that have been allowed to quietly creep into hurling. Fellas kicking each other. Fellas giving each other the butt of the hurley. Pulling at face guards. There's nothing manly about high tackles and pulling and dragging and body charges."
Cusack made an excellent point about the 'curse' of the use of the spare hand.
In his view, it was being used for a number of elements blighting the game -- pinning one of your opponent's arms down by his side; pulling your opponent down on top of you to make it look as though you have been fouled; using the spare arm to interfere with an opponent's hurley; grabbing the face guard; protecting yourself when you body-check somebody; raising your arm to tackle a man high at neck level when he tries to go past you; stopping the player so your team-mates can swarm around him and force a turnover with their spare hands.
"That's not blaming anybody," wrote Cusack. "It's just stating a fact about the way the game has gone. (In the past) the rules rewarded skills. Those skills aren't dead, but the rules aren't rewarding them so much anymore."
In the modern inter-county game, possession is not nine-tenths of the law like it used to be because some of the top teams have reached a deadly level of virtuosity in their execution of swarm tackling. It is not necessarily an advantage to have the ball going into the tackle.
At the moment, protection for the player in possession is minimal. If that player is given the advantage after being fouled, he is merely being slowed up until the next tackle comes, which often results in a turnover.
Against certain teams, there is no real 'advantage' any more to the advantage rule in hurling.
"Ten years ago, if a half-forward side-stepped his man, he was gone," says Dickie Murphy, former inter-county referee and NRC member. "Now, if a half-forward beats his man, there is another fella waiting for him.
"When you bring the ball into contact now, there is no advantage. With the play being so congested, there is very little advantage anyway. So you are better off blowing the first free. The advantage is the free."
More contact creates a greater propensity for aggressive fouls and dirty strokes. One of the problematic attitudes in hurling regarding those types of incidents -- which McEnaney refereed to -- is the laissez-faire reaction hurling people often have towards them.
To say that the damage caused was "accidental" and "unintentional" is often just a flimsy defence.
"I often find myself with mixed feelings watching matches now," says former Wexford manager Liam Griffin. "Part of you is on the edge of your seat saying, 'Jeez, this is great'.
"But another part of you is saying, 'Hold on, that's going too far.' Some of the injuries dished out this year were very wrong and caused serious damage.
"We're almost schizophrenic about this now. We all want the play to run, but the question that immediately raises is, how far? It has gone way too far on occasions. Hurling has gone too liberal and we need to take a step back."
Cusack is right when he says that the rule book needs to be "dusted down." When the Disciplinary Playing Rules Committee brought their 'enabling' motion before Congress in 2009, it proposed the addition of 'highly disruptive' to the category of fouls covered under rule. When it was defeated, all of the committee's 15 motions failed by default.
The principle of the committee's work was to bring clarity to the rules, especially the list of offences. Classifying the fouls would subsequently have made it easier for everybody when they happened on the pitch.
Six specific types of disruptive fouling were covered under the motions, many of which were aired by Cusack in August.
Yet once the proposals were defeated in 2009, so were the opportunities to tidy up the game and the standard of refereeing.
Some of the events of this summer, though, have forced a revision of sorts, especially with the negative message that can be transmitted to young players -- and impressionable parents -- from not sending off players who deserve to get red-carded.
The role of referee assessors is currently under review and is likely to be changed to more of a mentoring function.
For now though, punishing dangerous and overly aggressive play has become the priority.
"Looking forward to 2013, we must move forward with the sole idea that the referee is there to protect the player," says Barrett.
"We have to be honest and say that dangerous use of the hurley has been tolerated. Going forward, we need to apply the rules and regain lost ground."
That process has already begun.