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Hurling must come to terms with need for a rules review

At Congress two weeks ago, GAA president Liam O'Neill had to delay a debate on the restructuring of the hurling championship by half an hour because there were so few delegates in the room.

It's entirely possible that some of those who didn't make it on time don't care much about hurling or come from counties where Gaelic football is the undisputed number one.

Maybe it epitomises what seems to be a growing gulf between the running of both codes. After an exhaustive review of Gaelic football, O'Neill was last week asked if he was open to the idea of a similar analysis of hurling. He warned there was no point in doing so simply for the sake of it. Counties first need to buy into the idea of an appraisal.

"I'd be delighted to talk about hurling but there is no point if you're going to say you can't do certain things," O'Neill said. "There was a very definite message given to us from hurling managers over the last 12 months, and that message was to leave the game alone."

The desire for a root-and-branch investigation may not be there. However, that doesn't mean one should not take place. "There is definitely a bit of tweaking needed because hurling isn't perfect," says former Limerick 'keeper Joe Quaid, now a top coach. "But just because there has been a root-and-branch review of football doesn't mean that hurling has to get one – or see the exact same rules implemented."

Still, Quaid will admit change is needed. "I'd limit the amount of handpassing which would stop all these rucks breaking out," he says. "Then I'd bring in the advantage rule which would halt cynicism and negate the need for a black card.

"I'd empower linesmen and umpires, making sure they are all qualified referees themselves. Hurling has gone too fast for the ref to keep up with and he's getting no help from fellow officials.

"The make-up of the hurling season needs to be looked at as well. Everyone is cracking on about this exciting league we're having but I have no problem saying that the league is a joke. I was at Limerick versus Wexford at the Gaelic Grounds which was billed as the mother and father of all league games – sure there were barely 500 people at it. We won't know a thing about ourselves until we take on Tipp in the championship."

Modern inter-county hurling has changed to a huge degree. "Players are now lifting weights three nights a week by the time they reach minor," says former Wexford full-forward and ex-under 21 selector Gary Laffan. "They might look good in tight t-shirts but I'm not sure it's the correct body shape for a young hurler. What it does, however, is reward physicality. Players are now able to leave one hand wrapped around an opponent's body while they slow them down."

This move is commonly known now as the 'half tackle'. It lets players clamp down on their opponent's free hand, limits their use of the ball and hurley and often forces their marker into overcarrying. It's an ideal spoiling tactic but it slows down everything – and it's downright ugly. The 'half tackle' can also block a catching hand, or if a player is strong enough, stop an opponent's run.

Increased levels of strength and conditioning and a possession-dominated game lead to way more physical hits and more turnovers. At times the nature of tackling has gone completely out of control. You see pull-backs with the hurley, frontal checks and scrums.

There is pressure on referees to let the game flow, coming from managers, players, the public and pundits. In last year's clash between Kilkenny and Tipperary at one stage there were five rows going on at the same time. Cyril Farrell wondered aloud where the rulebook was but he was more or less rebuffed by his fellow panelists.

Pat McEnaney, the national referees' co-ordinator, has already admitted that his committee was disappointed that "seven to eight clear red cards" were missed by referees in last year's hurling championship. He described such a situation as "unacceptable" and signalled a change in approach this year.

"I'd have to say we weren't happy with it," McEnaney said. "There were only two red cards in last year's championship. We felt in our review that there should have been seven to eight more red cards that were clear offences. That's a figure of 16 per cent that we got right, which is not satisfactory," he said.

Ironically, while the two games vary wildly, hurling is becoming more like Gaelic football. Body contact is non-stop and there's more scope for dark arts. That's why the minors Laffan speaks of feel the need to be braced for physicality at such a young age.

Flair players have always illuminated hurling and slowing them down is ultimately what opposing managers want. This can be achieved through spoiling, sledging or tripping and, judging on past form, you need not worry too much about umpires intervening.

"I still don't think we should automatically do what the FRC did," Quaid warns, "but tactically the game is being slowed down and we need flair and excitement at a premium. So start with the advantage rule – that would make cynical players think twice before fouling and the referee will have enough time to let play run on, therefore increasing the chances of goals. Take it from there."

Current tactics are definitely not helping. Clare have been a top underage team in Ireland over the past few seasons but they seem intent on closing down space around midfield and deploying one- and two-man full-forward lines. Such are the ways of the modern game.

"Kilkenny are winning All-Irelands by bringing back their half-forwards and retreating their midfield," Gary Laffan says. "They have displayed huge physicality around the breaking ball and their full-forwards are hunting for ball the moment they lose it. They don't shirk a tackle and they also have three or four marquee forwards and they've raised the bar with every passing year.

"The problem is almost every other team has tried to follow suit – despite the fact that such a style might not suit them. Club teams have tried to follow that template and that's why local fixtures are finishing 0-12 – 0-10.

"We have a smashing game," Laffan concludes. "A team will soon win an All-Ireland with maybe a different style and the whole thing will change again. It's cyclical – in the meantime there are just a few tweaks needed to ensure the game flows better."

Irish Independent