There’s been a lot of discussion over the last few weeks on boards.ie about the looming absence of Séamus Callanan from the Tipperary team to play Waterford in the League semi-final. The consensus opinion was that it would be a better test of Waterford’s mettle if the free-scoring Tipp forward was present, particularly given the seemingly eternal concerns over our full-back line in the face of goal scorers. While I would be of the opinion that anything that enhances Waterford’s chances of success is a good thing, even in the much-maligned League – a day may come when we are so flush with success that can afford to look on it with disdain, but Sunday is not going to be that day – I could understand the logic of the position. It isn’t just a question of whether we have the personnel, it’s whether an entire system, one with the potential to transform our prospects and even the entire game of hurling, is really what we hope it is. Better to find out now that dream of making the Donegal-style tactics work in hurling is a pipe dream rather than later on when there is no chance to rectify it.
A lot of people will be satisfied then to see Callanan has been successful in his appeal against the red card, and there will be a lot of overlap with the subset who thought he didn’t deserve to get sent off in the first place. But while I can understand the position of the former, seeing the latter makes my blood boil. The issue at stake isn’t whether Callanan deserved to get sent off. The only question that should be considered by the authorities in any appeal is whether the rules were correctly applied. If the referee judged a player to have struck an opponent with the hurley and a review tells us that the player struck an opponent with the hurley, even with minimal force, that’s a red card. This includes the marching orders given to Michael Walsh and Shane O’Sullivan in the League last year, and the mild tap that resulted in a red card for John Keane in the 2012 Munster club final. Yes, they were harsh decisions. But as long as the referee is applying the letter of the law, you can’t claim you were hard done by. Let that be a lesson to you to show more care next time. That big piece of wood is for hitting the ball, not your opponent.
So how did Seamus Callanan get off the hook while the aforementioned Waterford* trio did not? I don’t think it’s far-fetched to suggest that there is one rule book for the Big Three and one for the rest of us. Recently we were all united in acclamation of King Henry. It was probably understandable amidst all the hosannas that no one saw fit to question why he felt the need to refer to the red card he received against Cork in the 2013 Championship. As with all of the red cards I have mentioned here, it was a hard call. But there was nothing substantively wrong with it, so the hysteria which greeted it could only be explained in the context of who it had happened to, not what had happened. The idea that it was a blot on his reputation was ridiculous. Countless players have been sent off over the years and no one bothers mentioning it come retirement. Yet not only did Henry feel the need to bring it up upon his retirement, he managed to make us aware of the fact that he had been sent off before in an obscure Minor game, so his reputation was well and truly in the toilet anyway, right?
That same summer, we had a similar ho-ha over Pat Horgan’s red card in the Munster final against Limerick. The result was the same – red card rescinded. You can see the pattern emerging. Maybe you don’t think that’s fair, the suggestion that players from the Big Three are getting treated more leniently than those from the other counties. There are plenty of examples out there of harsh decisions against Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary players that were not overturned, and perversely the pattern would suggest that referees are happy to hand out cards to the biggest names without fear nor favour. After all, they don’t come any bigger than Henry Shefflin. But how else can you explain the strict support for the final word of the referee in the cases of Keane, Walsh and O’Sullivan and the after-the-fact undermining of them that took place in the cases of Horgan, Shefflin and Callanan? At best, it’s too small a sample size to be significant and the authorities are making it up as they go along. At worst, they are so starry-eyed by the big names from the big counties that the entreaties about shure he’s a grand lad who would never harm a fly gain traction. Whatever the truth, it’s not good when it comes to a supposedly rule-based endeavour.
*I believe John Keane is from Tipperary, but if you are playing for a Waterford club you are not representing Tipperary.