Hurling is constantly evolving so the rules will have to change to reflect that

Hurling is constantly evolving so the rules will have to change to reflect that
Darragh Fitzgibbon of Cork is hauled back by Séamus Kennedy of Tipperary last weekend. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

THE term may have sounded like a made-up one, especially in how it sounded, but when Donal Óg Cusack mentioned pettifoggery on the League Sunday TV programme nine days ago, the context of the wording was around rules within the corridors of influence, and how those rules are subsequently being applied.

Pettifoggery is broadly defined as a quibble about petty points, which Cusack felt was creating a huge grey area around the hand-pass, and how referees were struggling to decide if the ball had been thrown or struck cleanly with the hand.

Cusack felt there was a much bigger issue at play in the game — the use of the spare hand. Cusack felt that when aggressive fouls with the spare hand are not being pulled by referees, it leads to gang-tackling and a rushed defence similar to rugby, which, in turn, too often leads to players pulled for throwing — or appearing to throw the ball — when surrounded by three or four opponents.

When Jackie Tyrrell responded, he completely disagreed with Cusack’s viewpoint.

“The spare hand is part of our game, and part of the tackle,” said Tyrrell.

“The beauty of hurling is its physicality, and you have to tackle with two hands. So, they either define the rule or leave it.”

Tyrrell didn’t want the game to become stop-start because of referees consistently blowing for fouling with the spare hand. He queried how refs would even technically decide on what was a foul with the spare hand.

Inevitably, Cusack weighed up the evidence from Tyrrell’s defence, before countering.

He drew attention to an incident at the end of the Limerick-Tipperary opening round league match, where a player who was going around his marker, was stopped by an opponent who stuck out his spare hand, the ball went to ground, which resulted in a melee.

A restriction on time cut the debate dead but the discussion could have gone on all night. Hurling is continually evolving. Players are developing new skills but, despite hurling’s increased speed, many of those skills are evolving to counter the game’s physicality and claustrophobia. And Cusack and Tyrrell’s contrasting opinions outlined that grey area subsequently created around cynical play in the game.

On Saturday, the standing playing rules committee will put the sin-bin proposal for hurling before Central Council.

A player can be black-carded for one of four cynical fouls: deliberately pulling down an opponent; tripping an opponent with hand(s), arm, leg, foot or hurley; deliberately colliding with an opponent after he has played the ball or for the purpose of taking the opponent out of the movement of play; remonstrating aggressively with a match official. Using threatening, abusive or provocative language to an opponent or team-mate is also considered a black card offence. As in football, a black card following a yellow, or a yellow following a black, is also equivalent to a red card.

The GAA have been here before. Fifteen years ago, they experimented with a series of fouls which would result in a player being effectively black-carded, even though the black-card was light years away from being introduced in football.

The principle though, was basically the same as it was under the old black-card system — the offenders would be replaced in the match but wouldn’t face a suspension.

The offences were basically the same as those offences later introduced for football but the disciplinary experiment was soon abandoned because there was such widespread opposition to those offences.

In 2009, the GAA tried again, but that experiment also failed because hurling people didn’t believe the game had an issue with cynical fouling and cynical tackling. That viewpoint has always exited in that grey space between denial and loose regulation, which subsequently granted a loose licence to practise cynical play.

The other side of the debate is perception, especially when perceived football rules are introduced to hurling.

“As hurling people within the association, we tend at times to have a smugness about ourselves,” said Cusack in his TV analysis before the Cork-Tipperary game on Saturday. “We think there is no need to change the rules but, for the success of the sport, we need to be constantly looking to see where there is opportunity for improvement.” 

Cusack has a point, especially when anything which encourages skill and free-flowing play should be looked at. And punishing certain cynical offences does work when referees have the conviction to apply those rules.

If endorsed on Saturday, and passed at Congress, the proposed four cynical fouls which can lead to a black card would certainly clean up the game. It will still be a hard sell because, if the rules are applied correctly, teams could have two or three players in the sin bin at any one time, especially late on when teams are desperate to hold on to leads.

Hurling will always struggle to accept a sin bin but there is another way to try and convince the hurling community; if a player commits a cynical foul beyond the 65-metre line, award a 45-metre free; if a player cynically pulls down a player between the 45 and 20 metre lines, the punishment should be a 20-metre free; if someone is cynically tackled or dragged down between the 20 and 13-metre lines, especially to stop a goal-scoring chance, award a penalty.

Yellow cards would also obviously apply to those offences.

That seems like a fairer way to cut out cynical fouling than the sin-bin.

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