AT GAA Congress in Croke Park last February, David Hassan, chair of the Standing Committee on the Playing Rules, warned that not confronting cynical play in hurling would effectively be endorsing it.
Referring to the evidence, where the committee had analysed 20 high-profile hurling matches between 2017 and 2019, Hassan said that 48 per cent of fouls involved ‘cynical or disruptive’ conduct.
“The presence of cynical fouling in hurling is well accepted,” Hassan told delegates. “Knowing that and consciously deciding to do nothing is contradictory. Central Council asked, ‘What sort of games do we want?’ and embraced seven principles. I’d bring delegates’ attention to these two: one, that it shouldn’t pay to foul and two, that we should reward skilful players.”
Hassan accepted that, while there was a defined spectrum of opinion on the topic from hurling people, he still believed that there should be a balance struck between what people want and what the game needs.
A number of emotive responses inevitably followed from the floor against the proposed black card and sin bin in hurling. Séamus Hickey of the Gaelic Players Association said that inter-county players were emphatically opposed to the proposal. The vote subsequently confirmed what everyone expected to happen; it was defeated by 210-46.
Hurling’s resistance to change has always been robust but the rejection of any need for a black-card type deterrent for cynical play has inevitably encouraged the practise, especially in goal-scoring situations.
There have been numerous examples to date in this championship but the most glaring one occurred in the first half of last Saturday’s Leinster final.
After Niall Burke caught a long Joe Canning delivery over the head of Huw Lawlor, the Kilkenny full-back pulled Burke’s hurley, completely stopping his momentum. Burke still got the sliotar away to Brian Concannon but the referee had blown for a free before Concannon stuck the ball in the net.
“There’s such a gap between the yellow card and red card that it’s proving a sanctuary for cynical players, and cynical play,” said Donal Óg Cusack in his half-time analysis on RTÉ.
“To make it clear, I’m a coach, I’m still a player. If I’m a player behind the full-back and I know he’s only going to get a yellow card for that, I’m saying well done there.
“In reality, the problem is with the rules. Call it a sin-bin, call it whatever you need to, it needs to be dealt with by the Association.”
Henry Shefflin then weighed in on the topic. “If Huw Lawlor knew there was a sin-bin there, he wouldn’t have pulled back Niall Burke,” said Shefflin.
Tactical and strategic fouling is becoming more common in hurling but, while it’s still less relevant than in football - primarily because free-takers can punish a foul from far greater distances – defenders know they have a licence to prevent goalscoring opportunities through cynical play.
That is just the reality of modern elite sport, which was never more evident than in the Spanish Super Cup final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid earlier this year.
The game was effectively decided five minutes from normal time when Real’s Federico Valverde chopped Atletico’s Alvaro Morata down as he was straight through on goal. Valverde was sent off for the cynical tackle but Real won the game 4-1 on penalties.
Valverde was only doing what was expected of him, and the reaction – from both sides afterwards – encapsulated as much. Valverde was named Man of the Match despite, or perhaps because of, his cynical foul.
Atletico manager Diego Simeone consoled Valverde as he walked off the pitch following the red card.
“I told him not to worry, that anyone would have done what he did in his place,” said Simeone afterwards. “He did what he had to do.”
Real coach Zinedine Zidane also praised Valverde.
“He did well, it was what he had to do,” said Zidane. "Fede won the prize and it belongs to him.”
The same could also be said of Mayo’s Eoghan McLaughlin on Sunday, who pulled down Galway’s Seán Kelly right on the edge of the penalty area in the closing moments of the Connacht final.
McLaughlin took a black card and conceded a close-range free rather than give up the goal chance or even a penalty. At the time, Galway were two points down so the black card was a price well worth paying, both for him, and for Mayo.
A free-taker’s power and scoring range means cynical fouling in hurling can always be punished easier than in most sports. A 20-metre free is scoreable in hurling, but the punishment is seriously watered down when a player is hauled down when straight through on goal with just the keeper to beat. And even more so when the only punishment is a yellow card.
The hurling community has always resisted the black card/sin-bin, but that attitude has always existed in that grey space between denial and loose regulation, which subsequently granted a loose licence to practise cynical play.
The sin bin will still always be a hard sell in hurling but – returning to a point made here before - there could be another way to try and convince the hurling community of the possible merits of punishing cynical fouling; if a player is cynically tackled or dragged down inside the 20-metre line, but outside the 13-metre line, especially to stop a goal-scoring chance, award a penalty.
With the penalty conversion rates so high now in hurling, that punishment seems a fairer way to cut out cynical fouling than a sin-bin.