As these things go (usually pear-shaped) the new experimental GAA rules seem to have got off to a positive start last weekend.
Certainly the summer-like scoreline at Fraher Field last Saturday, as Waterford held off Tralee IT by two points (3-11 to 3-9), suggests that there was plenty of football played, which is the whole idea behind the trial changes.
“We were happy,” said Croke Park’s Head of Games, Tallow man Pat Daly, after a total of 80 players were ‘sent off’ for yellow card offences (and replaced) as the new season got underway. “There was more playing time, less frees, less cynicism and bigger scoring.” Which sounds like mission accomplished.
Still, it’s early days, but as along as players and referees are reading off the same lengthy rules sheet, and are given time to adjust without the usual knee-jerk over-reactions, they could alter ‘Gaelic’ significantly for the better.
However, while the demise of football as a spectacle had to be tackled, so to speak, the association’s brains trust mustn’t lose sight of what’s happening in hurling, the beautiful game which is in danger of developing an ugly side.
Brian Cody’s admiration for Ulster football teams’ ‘swarm defence’ tactics has helped Kilkenny become the most awesome all-round force the code has ever seen. But many would argue that they have brought the art of what used to be called ‘blocking and hooking’ to a borderline level.
As Eoin Kelly told the Sunday Times’ Denis Walsh recently in reflecting on Waterford’s All-Ireland final flop, “Their tackling is ferocious. They hunt in a pack and they’re very good at it. They crowd you out and pull and drag out of you. I’d say on six occasions they just pulled me here [by the elbow]. They have every trick off to a tee. People laughed at Ger Loughnane a couple of years ago [when he complained about Kilkenny’s tactics] but he wasn’t 100% off the mark. They know what they can get away with. They’re very cute at what they do. Physically, they’re very, very strong and others teams will have to come up to that benchmark.”
Davy Fitzgerald has spoken in similar terms, though everyone, probably himself included, has conceded that his direction to certain unsuited Waterford players to give their opposite numbers a few belts backfired as badly as any aspect of the team’s/management’s performance four months ago. It’s a fact of hurling life that Waterford will have to get stronger and become more ‘street smart’, as it were, if they’re to have any hope of catching up.
But is that right, or an indictment of the way the rules are being bent, with apparent impunity, at the expense of the flowing hurling we all want to see; which, it should be said, Kilkenny are as capable of as anyone, often once they’ve out-muscled and frustrated the opposition?
Review the footage of the All-Ireland final, or better again the photographers’ action stills, and you’ll notice the number of unpenalised fouls committed – not malicious or dangerous, but of the harassing, spoiling sort: hurleys being held, jerseys and shorts being tugged, helmets and faceguards being grappled; the type of close-quarters attention that drives skilful players mad, because they know nine times out of ten they won’t and can’t be picked up on, at least by the naked eye in real time.
Given the speed of the game and the distances the modern sliotar is travelling, surely the time has come in top-level hurling to have two referees in charge. That isn’t feasible, obviously, at local level, where county boards are lucky to have one per game, but at inter-county level it may need to be looked at.
And, it’s not just Kilkenny by any means who are at it. They’re just experts at everything they do. It’s happening at all levels (see photo), and doubtless has done for years, to a certain extent.
The way the Cats have perfected it over the past few years, based some bit at least on the Tyrone blueprint, has doubtless influenced coaches to train teams differently; especially now that first-team hurling has become a rarity. The modern game is so fast that there’s no space (13-a-side may be worth looking at too) and it’s in the tight that players get away with things.