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Gaelic games and the necessary art of cynicism – The Irish Times


Across a blue-sky weekend, cynicism was the only cloud. The Offaly manager Leo O’Connor complained loudly about Cork’s “absolutely cynical hurling” after the Under-20 final on Sunday. The Cork-Kerry football game on Saturday hinged on a penalty awarded for a cynical tackle that took place outside the large parallelogram, but within the bounds of a comparatively recent rule change. Arguably.

The same rule should have been applied in Nowlan Park on Saturday when the Dublin forward Niall Scully was brought down, outside the large parallelogram too, but with no other covering defender. Instead, a free was awarded, rather than a black card and a penalty.

Inconsistencies in the application of rules, or referees taking the path of least resistance, are recurring concerns, but they are not the core issue. At the heart of all this is an age-old conflict in team sports between winning by all means, and a general piety about fair play. No coach or player would ever stand up in public and make a cogent case for the value of fouling, and yet every winning team has a working relationship with cynicism.

O’Connor was understandably furious with some of Cork’s tackling in the first half of the Under-20 final. The Cork full-back Shane Kingston should have been sent off for making dangerous contact with the head of Cormac Egan – who had to be replaced at half-time. There were other incidents too of Offaly forwards being brought down after they had rounded the first defender, but before they could become a goal threat.

When O’Connor’s remarks were put to the Cork manager, Ben O’Connor, he was blunt in his response. “If they got the chance, they’d probably do the same thing. It happens in games. You do what you have to do to win,” he said.

Offending the spirit of fair play is never a regret for winning teams. It is how they roll: needs must. So, this is where the rules must intervene. Teams are not going to get a fit of conscience about this. If the cost of cynical play can be absorbed in the budget of every winning team, nothing will change.

Black cards in football have been around since 2014; in hurling, they were introduced just two years ago, for the very specific purpose of protecting goalscoring opportunities. A report commissioned by the GAA’s Standing Committee on Playing Rules, and quoted extensively at the 2022 GAA Congress, concluded that “fouls preventing clear goal scoring opportunities has significantly decreased from 1.5 per game in 2020 to 0.3 per game in 2021.”

Then that rule seemed to go into hibernation. In the summer of 2021 there were a couple of high profile incidents when Limerick and Clare were both penalised in championship matches. But when David McInerney was quite rightly sinbinned in Clare’s opening game this summer Brian Lohan reckoned that nobody had been penalised under this rule in a championship match since his team two years ago.

After the game on Saturday the Kerry manager Jack O’Connor said that he had never seen a penalty awarded for the kind of foul Sean Powter committed on Paul Geaney. Just like in hurling, that rule had been gathering dust.

David Gough had the courage to implement it. He consulted with his umpires, and in every decision like this there will be an element of subjectivity. In his Irish Examiner column, the former referee Brian Gavin said that Gough got it wrong; the pundits on The Saturday Game said he was right. John Cleary, the Cork manager, was furious, as you can imagine.

When it comes to cynical play, every team and every player makes a judgment about what is an affordable price to pay. For Cork on Saturday, they paid over the odds for a foul that, ultimately, Powter didn’t need to make. Coming in from that angle, with Powter putting pressure on the kick, it would have taken a quite remarkable shot to beat Micheal Aodh Martin in the Cork goal. The goal from the penalty and Powter’s absence for ten minutes were the two biggest turning points in a game that, before then, was up for grabs.

Will every other Cork defender think twice about committing that sort of foul in future? Of course. Not out of conscience, but because the rules extracted a heavy price on Saturday. It wasn’t worth it. Every team makes that calculation: is it worth it?

Kerry’s cynicism on Saturday had a different quality. Having coughed up six clear goal scoring chances against Mayo, recovering the defensive moxie that took them to last year’s All-Ireland, and being harder to break down, were top of the agenda at the weekend. Overall, their tracking and their tackling were excellent, including some impressively clean dispossessions of Cork ball carriers.

But part of that is also defending from the front. In the second half Kerry were penalised by Gough 16 times – in comparison to seven fouls committed by Cork – and many of Kerry’s fouls were in the Cork half of the field. This is one of the oldest formulas in elite Gaelic games: do your fouling in the other half of the field.

As far back as 2002, when Kerry reached the All-Ireland final, the Kerry defence conceded fewer frees, on average, than any other back line in the championship and the Kerry forwards conceded, on average, more frees than anybody else. On Saturday, they executed that plan without suffering a black card.

Was there a black card offence that Gough missed? Probably not. Is it a hole in the rules that systematic fouling can escape the censure of a black card? Yes.

Kerry budgeted for that. It is what winning teams do.

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