Significant decisions made at GAA Congress leave questions to be answered in Tipperary and elsewhere

Unique congress has rung the changes

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Willie Barrett

At the GAA Congress, Willie Barrett outlined the case very effectively for the introduction of the sin bin and a penalty for cynical fouling in hurling

I’ve only ever had just one experience of attending a GAA Congress. The year was 1981 and the venue was the Gleneagle Hotel, Killarney. It was, let’s just say, an education.

How I came to be a Tipperary delegate at that congress is a story in itself. I was west Tipp PRO for less than a year and when nominations were sought for congress I was proposed by the late Teddy Landers, Golden. 

Teddy was a great character at meetings back then. His boardroom jousts with the late Mick Frawley are still vividly recalled. He had a likeable roguery about him and loved nothing better than teasing out rule book intricacies when cases came before the board.

In my case I suspect he saw this young whippersnapper, new to GAA politics, who could do with a crash course on the inner workings of the organisation. Sadly, Teddy passed away unexpectedly a few years later.

So, on that congress weekend I travelled to Killarney with Mick Frawley and roomed with Mick Maguire in the Aghadoe Heights Hotel. Teddy was right – it was all highly instructive for a novice. 

The intervening forty years have seen the association transform itself. Wouldn’t it be interesting to trace that transformation? Another time, perhaps.

I was reminded of that far-off congress at the weekend when the GAA held its latest annual gathering, this time in virtual mode. It was a unique congress but one that made some very significant decisions.

One successful motion will have major implications for Tipperary. From 2023 onwards senior club championships – including intermediate - will now be limited to 16 teams. For Tipperary this potentially means a major realignment of our competitions, with en bloc regrading down the line - as well as the breaking of the divisional link. Controversy is inevitable.

What now comes into question is the status of the Seamus O’Riain Cup. The obvious logic of the weekend’s motion is that the 16 Seamus O’Riain Cup teams should now be rebranded as intermediate sides and, consequentially, the existing intermediates become junior As. One can sense the hackles rising already.

The divisional link is a separate, if related issue. In the past we’ve accommodated divisional winners with a route back into the Dan Breen, even if they were Seamus O’Riain teams.

The link was broken last year because of Covid but that break now becomes a permanent fixture. Of course, you could still give the divisional winners a visa to the county knockouts if they were already part of the Dan Breen group, but the problem arises when the divisional winner is a Seamus O’Riain team.

Personally, I’d have no issue breaking this divisional link, which has proved a major fixtures headache in the past. If a team isn’t good enough to be part of the Dan Breen 16 then it doesn’t deserve a backdoor route into that competition. Of course, it will devalue the divisional championships somewhat but that’s the price to be paid for the greater good.

I think you can expect major ructions over these changes, as clubs digest the full implications of what has transpired. County chairman, Joe Kennedy, has stated that clarification will be sought from Croke Park. Strange that this didn’t happen before the measure was voted on.

Incidentally Tipperary voted in favour of this motion, which was very significant since we are one of just a few counties likely to be heavily impacted by the decision. And it is my understanding – always subject to correction, of course – that no divisional chairman raised any objection to the motion when the matter was considered at a county management meeting.

The introduction of the sin bin and penalty for cynical fouling was the most topical motion to emerge from congress. It just managed to scrape the necessary majority at 61% and will now go ahead as a trial move in this year’s championship.

Interestingly a number of the foremost hurling counties such as Limerick, Kilkenny and Galway opposed the move, as did Tipperary, which I felt was a disappointment. Surely the evidence of the past year left the case for change unanswerable, though you still have this hard-nosed attitude in some hurling circles that sees the game as above criticism.

Ironically, while Tipperary voted against the motion, it was two Tipperary men who spearheaded the drive for its acceptance. As chairman of the referees’ body, Willie Barrett outlined the case very effectively, even if the electronics let him down at times when illustrating cases of cynical play.

Above: Tipperary's John Costigan made the most impressive contribution of the weekend at the annual GAA Congress

However it was John Costigan, speaking as a member of Croke Park’s management committee rather than a Tipp delegate, who stole the show with the most impressive contribution of the weekend. Highlighting the brilliance of good defending, he laid out starkly how cynical fouling has become such a blight on the game. He may well have played a significant part in swaying some voters.

I’m glad it got through, though in its present guise it may well have to be tweaked in future years. Under this new rule a number of specified fouls committed inside the 20-metre line or in the semi-circle D will result in a penalty award and the sin-binning of the offender for 10 minutes - but only if the referee decides that a clear goalscoring opportunity was denied.

I can see a number of problematic areas arising here. The referee has to make a judgment call that a clear goalscoring chance was denied and that’s going to be a very grey, subjective area.

It might be straightforward if the foul happens in front of goal but what about out near the sideline, or corner flag? I don’t have faith in referees bringing any consistency to this requirement. Why not simply award a penalty if the foul is committed within the zone and take the referees’ judgment out of the equation.

Then there’s the issue of the specified fouls, such as dragging down an opponent, or tripping, or careless use of the hurley, or striking with the hurley. Defenders will quickly learn to avoid all the above infringements and simply foul in another way. What if you just grab the forward and hold him up. Under these rules it won’t be a penalty.

Two standout cynical fouls from last year’s championship are often highlighted. In the dying moments of the All-Ireland quarter-final Seamie Callanan was hauled down, rugby style, in the D area by Galway’s Adrian Tuohey to prevent an obvious goal scoring chance at a time when Tipperary trailed by just three points. Under the new rule it would clearly result in a penalty and a sin-binning.

However, late in the All-Ireland final Will O’Donoghue, again inside the D zone, did a cynical foul on Stephen Bennett to prevent a goalscoring opportunity, even though Limerick were comfortably ahead.

Watch that foul again. You could argue that O’Donoghue did not commit any of the specified offences as listed in the motion at congress; instead, he grabbed Bennett in a bear-like hug to prevent his progress. So, under the new rule it’s unlikely the Limerick man would be sin- binned or have a penalty awarded against him.

Again, why not make it straightforward so that any personal foul within the designated area results in a penalty? I suspect in its present wording the rule will have minimal impact, except that now the defenders will make sure to foul further outfield. 

In all of this, of course, the elephant in the room, the handpass, was once again ignored. Encouragingly I’m told it will be a priority item in the future, which is not before time, given that the abuse of the handpass rule has had a major - and detrimental - effect on the game.

With regard to the ever-present rucks that are now part of hurling, a friend of mine refers to them as the “rugbyisation” of the game. He’s correct, of course. Rucks, even mauls, were never part of hurling and their prominence now is another stain on the sport.

This facet of the game, I suspect, has much to do with the modern obsession with getting the ball to hand. In the past the focus of hurling was on moving the ball as fast as possible; now it’s all about getting, and holding, possession. This explains why overhead striking and ground hurling have all but disappeared from the sport.

The handpass or, more accurately, hand-throw has contributed hugely to this development. Players and coaches have discovered that once you have the ball in your fist you control the play. Both opponents and the referee are powerless to stop you from tossing the ball wherever you choose. The handpass rule is simply unenforceable in its present guise.

I have sympathy for referees on this handpass rule but they also carry huge responsibility to be upfront and openly admit that the rule is unworkable. Wouldn’t it be a great driver of change if the referees’ body came out with a statement admitting that it is impossible to police the handpass rule? 

Conor O’Donovan’s proposed solution is by far the most workable I’ve seen and deserves, at the very least, to be seriously trialled. 

Finally, as a follow on from last week a correspondent has pointed out a Nationalist contributor from the past that I wasn’t aware of. T.F. Rogers was an Emly man, the son of an RIC officer, who was jailed after 1916 for his involvement with the Volunteers.

He won an All-Ireland junior football medal with Tipperary in 1912, was secretary of the O’Leary’s club in Tipperary Town for many years, and later in the 1940s and early 1950s reported for The Nationalist on local games. He worked for a solicitor.

Also, Paddy Joe O’Sullivan, N.T., Kilsheelan wrote as Greenisle for The Nationalist for some years. He was a selector on the last Waterford team to win the All-Ireland senior hurling championship in 1959. 

For more Tipperary sport see Aishling Moloney chosen on ladies football senior team of the championship