If we keep ignoring the problems, people will stop watching.
Hurling is part of who we are. Tradition has dictated that. There is nothing Irish people enjoy more than sitting down to watch a good game of hurling.
All-Ireland semi-final weekend, while only a few years old, has captured the imagination of the Irish public. Subsequently, from that weekend the final has tended to be a bit of a letdown, how could it not be?
However, it can be argued that this year’s semi-finals papered over a few cracks starting to appear in hurling. Hurling is defined by its people. Hurling people are what make the sport so special. Their passion is unrivalled.
Inadvertently though, they could be the very same people stopping hurling becoming a better spectacle.
Here are our five changes hurling must make to get even better.
1. Introduce the black card.
The black card was first introduced into football in 2014. There was a lot of backlash initially, particularly due to misinterpretations of the rules by various referees.
The punishment was you had to be replaced by a sub and couldn’t come back on. Famously, Lee Keegan and Johnny Cooper were both black carded by Maurice Deegan in the 2016 All-Ireland football final replay. It was a sad end to the final for both players. Nobody in their right mind could look back then at the black card punishment and say it was fair.
However, the rule was changed this year with a 10-minute sin-bin coming in. This has been largely well-received with the punishment fitting the crime a lot more.
Hurling has so far resisted bringing in the black card. There was a Congress vote earlier this year where 82% of delegates voted against the rule being introduced. There have been many ex-players who have spoken out against the black card coming into hurling.
Tipperary’s John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer, speaking to Pundit Arena, said: “I don’t want to change the game because it’s still the best game in the world you know?
Joe Brolly made headlines when calling Sean Cavanagh not a “man” on RTÉ back in 2013. While his personal insults were completely out of order, he was right with his overall point. There is nothing more infuriating when a player is through on goal, about to have a shot and is deliberately pulled down. Where is hurling’s outrage?
We only had this situation once in the All-Ireland Final but it was, nevertheless, frustrating. Waterford’s Stephen Bennett was finally put through in the 66th minute. With the game virtually out of sight, Bennett headed for goal only to be dragged down unceremoniously by Limerick’s Will O’Donoghue. The subsequent free was saved. Limerick’s only punishment? A yellow card for O’Donoghue.
How many games does this have to happen in before something is done? When is enough, enough?
2. Enforce steps’ rule properly.
The four steps rule has never been applied properly, in both football and hurling. There’s almost an unwritten rule that players can take six, seven, up to maybe 10 steps. Bonus steps seem to be introduced if a player is fouled, as the count rises to 14, 15…It is a huge problem for hurling but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.
I referee at club level for both football and hurling. Something I started noticing early on was that I was letting players overcarry the ball. Subsequently, this was leading to a tackle, and sometimes a foul, from an opposing player. From there, I suddenly had a massive decision to make.
Do I call the player for overcarrying the ball, even though he is now being fouled? Or, do I ignore the steps taken and blow up for the foul now taking place? Whatever decision I would go with would cause outrage on either sideline as both teams had a valid argument for a free. This all stemmed from not blowing the overcarrying in the first place, before any contact was made.
Players will never overcarry the ball when they have loads of space. It would make no sense. The majority of it takes place in crowded areas of the pitch when a player has just gained possession. They inevitably need more than four steps to get out of that situation and referees will, almost always, let them try and get away.
We have to start enforcing the steps rule properly. If we get strict with the rule, after an embedding in period, players will begin moving the ball quicker before they hit contact. Referees will become more consistent as all overcarrying will be blown, leading to less subsequent fouling.
At first glance, blowing a player up for five steps will look harsh. However, if referees, as a group, decide to clamp down on this, it will have massive positive outcomes for the game of hurling.
3. Heavier sliotar at inter-county level
Unfortunately, the point-scoring rate has now spiralled out of control. Take the 2004 All-Ireland final. This was the last time there wasn’t a goal scored in hurling’s showpiece. Cork beat Kilkenny 0-17 to 0-9, 26 points total.
This year, the score was 0-30 to 0-19, 49 points. Almost double the amount of points scored.
In fact, in Limerick’s All-Ireland semi-final, the record was broken for the highest scoring goalless game in the history of the Championship. The Treaty county beat Galway 0-27 to 0-24, a total of 51 points.
It could be argued that increasing the weight of the sliotar will have a positive impact on goal rates in the Championship. Obviously, this will make scoring points from range more difficult. This means teams will try and work goal chances more, ultimately leading to a better spectacle.
Does anybody really think that Austin Gleeson should be able to come back to just outside his own 45 in Croke Park, on All-Ireland final day, and with no wind, hit a free over the bar? This has become more of a trend and before too long, full forwards will be giving scorable frees away inside the opposition’s 45.
Golf was having a similar debate ten, fifteen years ago in regards to equipment and golf ball change. They have done nothing about it, and now Bryson DeChambeau has taken full advantage. DeChambeau talks openly about just wanting to hit the ball as far as he can and then go find it. Hurling will follow suit if we’re not careful.
The solution is simple, introduce a heavier sliotar for senior inter-county games.
4. Two referees at inter-county level
As mentioned above, I referee club hurling in Dublin. I am also still playing both codes for my club so would be well able to keep up with play.
However, when even reffing a Junior A hurling game, if I’m up with play and the full back gets the ball and hits it 100 metres down the pitch, the ball will arrive in the other full forward line in about three seconds.
Even Usain Bolt will struggle to get to where that ball will land. This has meant I have had to call frees from sometimes 50/60 metres away, maybe more.
Now let’s translate that to inter-county, where the ball travels at a much faster pace much more often. How is a referee meant to be up with play if the ball is sailing over his head for most of the game? All referees at that level are extremely fit, yet Fergal Horgan had to call some crucial frees in Sunday’s All-Ireland while being too far away from play.
Football seems to have become obsessed with copying Aussie Rules in their introduction of the mark, (that’s for another article). However, hurling should following their lead by introducing two referees at inter-county level, one for each half. Referees are already mic’d up to their officials so there would be no issue with communication.
The game is only continuing to get faster and this introduction will allow for more consistent and correct calls be made from officials.
5. Increase numbers for Liam MacCarthy.
Pat Gilroy caused controversy for his appearance on The Sunday Game last week. In the midst of getting caught up with trying to amalgamate Kerry and Cork, he did raise a few interesting points, particularly when it came to hurling.
Gilroy said: “We’ve no participation (in hurling) in huge parts of the country. That’s not right. We’ve given up. Money should go into that. It’s a great competition but imagine you could grow it to 20 teams.”
I designed this graphic for the Mail on Sunday last year, fairly stark really pic.twitter.com/6xR69gKY8e
— Aaron Dunne (@aaronmcfc1) December 14, 2020
None of the counties north of Galway and Dublin have ever won the Liam MacCarthy Cup. The introduction of tiers in hurling has allowed the sport to develop, albeit slowly, in the smaller counties. You do feel now is the time to start pushing more of these counties into the Liam MacCarthy. Otherwise, the gap between the elite and the rest will get bigger.
Earlier this year, Congress voted to increase the Leinster Hurling Championship from five teams to six. This meant Antrim’s Joe McDonagh victory allowed them promotion to the Liam MacCarthy, with no team going down.
Kerry (Joe McDonagh runners-up), should also be promoted into Munster next year. Of course, the Munster round-robin games have been phenomenal and captured the public’s imagination. However, Kerry being added will bring both province to six counties each, and it’s a start. If teams like Kerry are denied the chance to compete with the best, how will they ever compete?
Finally, the Joe McDonagh final should also be a permanent fixture on All-Ireland final day. Last Sunday saw hurling’s second-tier competition enjoy the limelight, even for the briefest of periods.
Hurling is an integral part of Ireland’s tradition and always will be. It’s a sport like no other, widely regarded as the fastest field sport in the world.
However, it’s still governed by the same rules it had 60/70 years ago. The game has moved on. Players are fitter, faster, can hit the ball longer and therefore, goals are no longer sought after. Cynical fouls continue to blight the game, one referee simply can’t keep up with play and smaller counties are denied the chance to compete at the top table.
There are many great things about this wonderful game that will always be there. But, for hurling to get even better, the sport needs to implement the above. And that’s what we’re trying to do here. Not change the game, just make it better.