AFTER Declan Dalton converted yet another free to put Imokilly ahead by 1-14 to 0-10 in last the county hurling quarter-final against Sarsfields, the TV camera flashed to William Kearney on the sideline.
Kearney, who had just been sent off on a second yellow card, was distraught, hunched down on the sideline as two Sars mentors tried to console him.
The game was clearly gone from Sars by that stage. Natural disappointment was already kicking in, but Kearney’s body language and demeanour reflected his anger and devastation at the manner of his sending off.
As John Cronin went to get past him, Kearney had tried to tackle the Imokilly player but his hurley was high and, although Kearney let go of his stick, referee Colm Lyons had already made his decision.
Kearney clearly vented his frustration towards Lyons, but the rest of the Sarsfields players nearby were also so livid with the decision that Eoin and Conor O’Sullivan also picked up yellow cards in the aftermath.
It was a tight call but, as Donal O’Grady rightly pointed out in his TV co-commentary: “Any hurley up high, you’re going to pick up a yellow card”.
Sars’ James Sweeney also walked shortly afterwards on a second yellow, and when John Meyler and Kieran ‘Fraggie’ Murphy were asked about the sending offs in the post-match analysis, they said that the style of refereeing in the county is holding Cork back at Munster and All-Ireland level.
“Cork is refereed by the rules of the book,” said Meyler.
The atrocious conditions made it extremely hard for Lyons and Nathan Wall (who refereed the curtain-raiser between Glen Rovers and Newtowhandrum), but the standard of play on show was still poor.
That was even more obvious when compared with the Limerick hurling semi-finals (Kilmallock-Na Piarsaigh, and Patrickswell-Doon) played in the Gaelic Grounds the following day.
However, a comparison between the two games in Cork with the two in Limerick makes for interesting reading.
In the two Cork games, there was 3-53 scored, with 1-22 (41%) of that total coming from frees; in Limerick, there was a combined total of 2-70 scored, with 48% of that total (0-35) coming from frees.
Fewer frees, and fewer scores from frees in the two Cork matches doesn’t necessarily mean that the play was more open and less fractured than it was in Limerick.
The standard looked far higher in Limerick. The torrential rain, especially in the Imokilly-Sars game, made it extremely hard to make any accurate judgement when comparing overall quality. Limerick may have produced a higher standard in a more intense and hard-hitting environment, but the issues raised by Meyler and Murphy on the standard of refereeing is also largely linked to the style of play in Cork.
Cork’s game is largely built on pace, movement, and skill. That style is more open and expansive than in most counties, and less robust and aggressive than in certain counties.
In that context, the overall style of hurling in the county may be the primary reason that Cork are struggling in Munster and the All-Ireland, at both club and county level — because they are not conditioned for a more aggressive, physical game, which is a dominant style in many other counties.
Hurling’s continued evolution has radically altered the game’s culture. In many ways, the game has never been more physical, with more contact and tackling than ever before.
Conversely, the game dominated by possession, where there is a premium on short passing, short puck-outs, and laser stick-passing has taken a lot of the dangerous play out of the match.
In the past, a gang of players could stand pulling wildly under a dropping ball, with the propensity for carnage from swinging hurleys.
That climate no longer exists, but there is still a clear tension now between how hurling is played and how it is refereed.
Players are conditioned to take the ball into contact rather than just hit it blindly, which presents a whole host of different challenges for referees.
They have to decide if the player in possession is charging or over-carrying, or if the opposition are holding, or fouling that player. Those decisions are harder again to make when there is more and more traffic arriving on the scene by the second.
Returning to Kearney’s second yellow card last weekend, high challenges were one of hurling’s offences that referees were instructed to police more stringently this season.
As an inter-county referee, Lyons would be more mindful of punishing that offence than referees outside the inter-county panel.
Kearney may have been unlucky, but the rules are there to protect players too. In the Patrickswell-Doon game last Sunday, one prominent Limerick player should have walked after two separate off-the-ball incidents, one in which he rammed his hurley straight into an opponent’s midriff.
If Kearney watched that incident on TG4, he would have felt even more aggrieved again, but that was a referee in Limerick not doing his job properly. It happened in front of the umpires, so if the decision was duckedbecause the player was a big name, the referee was betraying the code he is supposed to abide by.
It could be argued that referees in Cork don’t encourage contact in the same way that many coaches don’t coach contact, or the same level of physicality defining coaching philosophies in other counties.
Consequently, referees in Cork will naturally pull for more technical fouling that referees in other counties wouldn’t even consider a foul.
The phrase that referees need ‘to use common sense’ is often a fair argument, but it also can be a loose term when it comes to referees — because their primary job is to be a dispassionate arbiter of the rules on the pitch.
Otherwise, hurling can be a licence for anarchy and chaos.