Christy O'Connor breaks down the impact of the new hurling rules

Cynical fouls will be punished but change will only come into play at inter-county
Christy O'Connor breaks down the impact of the new hurling rules

Joe Deane, Cork, is fouled by Fergal Heartly, Waterford, in front of keeper Stephen Brenner, for a penalty in the 2005 Munster hurling semi-final. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

AT THE outset of the Irish Examiner hurling podcast last Monday, TJ Ryan asked the show’s guest, hurling referee Fergal Horgan, to define a clear goalscoring chance in the context of the new rules.

In the GAA Playing Rules Update released by the GAA the same day, the list of infractions committed, on an attacking player with a goalscoring opportunity, either inside the 20-metre line or the semi-circular arc were listed; to pull down an opponent, or to trip an opponent with hands, arm, leg, foot, or hurley or, to use the hurley in a careless manner.

The rules, as they are set out, are obvious but Ryan was delving into the minutiae of the detail, and how difficult it would be for referees to make split-second decisions in terms of defining clear goalscoring opportunities.

Despite the list of infractions, a clear and obvious goalscoring chance is not in the new ruling, which leaves it totally up to the referee’s discretion to decide whether a foul necessitates a penalty and a sin-binning for the player who commits that infraction.

“The referee has to take a few things into consideration,” said Horgan. “How many defenders are between him (the attacking player) and the goal-line, or could someone else come across and block him? These are all a matter of opinion and they are only the opinion of the man who is in charge on the day, nobody else.”

The technical detail of what exactly constitutes a clear goalscoring opportunity was bound to stir debate, especially when there has been no trial period, and particularly with the inherent, and now potentially game-changing, risks that defending on the edge suddenly presents.

Is it a clear goalscoring opportunity if a player 20 metres from goal is pulled down by his marker, just one or two seconds before another covering defender would have cut off his path to goal if the play had developed? How does the referee interpret a foul if a defender makes a reasonable attempt to play the ball, but the foul stops the attacking player releasing an unmarked attacker just coming off the shoulder?

Colin Dunford, Waterford, is fouled by Bill Cooper, Cork, in the 2016 Allianz Hurling League at Páirc Uí Rinn. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Colin Dunford, Waterford, is fouled by Bill Cooper, Cork, in the 2016 Allianz Hurling League at Páirc Uí Rinn. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

There are multiple layers of grey around the topic, but Horgan still said that the adjudication of both a goalscoring opportunity and what constitutes its cynical prevention would not pose major problems for match officials.

“My concern is around the area that is cynical,” said Horgan. “To me, it’s a very, very easy decision to take. 

I can easily tell you the difference between an accidental trip and a fella putting his hurley out to trip him. There is a big, big difference.”

Referees have to allow for accidental collisions. An accidental trip has to be a free, especially if a player is heading for goal, but making that correct decision in real time will be harder again when the speed of the game — on good pitches — should be much higher than normal in the National League.

That challenge will be all the greater again considering referees will be plunged straight into the deep end in trying to implement the new rules. Apart from there being no experimental trial period like in the usual pre-season competitions, the majority of referees haven’t officiated a match — never mind an inter-county game — in nearly six months. Without the usual platform of early-season games that allow referees get up to speed — Colleges matches, Fitzgibbon Cup, inter-county challenge games — Horgan admitted that “match sharpness is going to be an issue”.

There is bound to be teething problems for more than just referees because there is anxiety too amongst players, especially when a sin-binning, combined with the concession of a penalty, could ultimately cost the game.

Before the motion went to Congress in February, the GPA called for its withdrawal after 70% of inter-county hurlers who responded to a survey were against the proposals.

A few days later, Wexford’s Matthew O’Hanlon said that the players’ response wasn’t to promote cynical play, but that it was more just for clarification and how the ruling will be administered across different levels.

“I’d love for it to be debated more, to see the data behind it,” said O’Hanlon. 

Is it because there’s a decrease in goals? Is that what we want to see in the game? What is deemed a cynical foul? This is going to impact a lot of results at inter-county and club level.”

CONFUSION

O’Hanlon’s reference to the club game underlined some of the confusion still out there because the ruling is not being introduced at club level. It also emerged this week that there won’t be any black card and that a sin-binning will result in a yellow card. That lack of distinction will take a while to get used to because a player can be yellow-carded but not sin-binned for conceding a penalty inside the large parallelogram.

Forwards should target more goals. Defenders will be forced into making millisecond decisions around stopping those attempts but a sufficient deterrent to prevent the systematic practise of fouling a player going through on goal, or likely to play a scoring pass, denies defenders that loose licence to practise cynical play.

Similar to the players though, referees will also have a lot of big decisions to make around the new ruling, especially early on in the league. On the other hand, maybe referees won’t have to make that many contentious calls. Because with players less likely now to deliberately pull down an opponent and risk a penalty and 10 minutes in the sin-bin, the new ruling may make referees lives easier, not harder.

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