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Declan Bogue: GAA's high tackling problem will rumble on

Colour change: Derry’s Padraig Cassidy receives a yellow for a high challenge. If new directives had been brought in a week earlier, he would have been sent off
Colour change: Derry’s Padraig Cassidy receives a yellow for a high challenge. If new directives had been brought in a week earlier, he would have been sent off
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

One week ago today at a presentation in Croke Park, the National Referees' Committee laid out a set of guidelines that they hoped would curtail head-high challenges in football and hurling.

The criteria to consider in such situations includes: if contact is made to an opponent's head; if an opponent has no opportunity to protect himself; if contact/impact is excessive or causes injury; if the elbow/forearm/hurley is part of the contact; if the player making contact jumps or has two feet off the ground; if the player making contact had a realistic alternative by way of challenging the opponent; the direction and distance covered by the player who makes contact.

Then there are guidelines for the players: the ball must be the primary focus; players are responsible for the contact they make; the player must have an awareness and duty of care towards their opponent; the player playing the ball will be protected.

Refereeing decisions will always be a process of interpretation and, while these guidelines are to be welcomed when there are fathoms of knowledge still to be explored on the subject of concussion, they should have been announced prior to the start of the Football Championship rather than 10 days into it.

These actions place even more scrutiny on the performance of referees. Last Sunday, Anthony Nolan found himself trying to manage a combustible derby between Down and Armagh and, just prior to half-time, had a huge decision to make when the Mournemen's Caolan Mooney caught Aidan Nugent with a high tackle.

Repeated viewings of the replay showed that while there was contact, it wasn't hugely significant. Nugent was in a multi-directional movement at the time and while the phrase 'duty of care' may look good in black and white, it excludes any understanding of the speed of present inter-county football and hurling. Mooney was sent off in a game with several examples of such incidents.

Late on, Armagh's man of the match Rian O'Neill made contact with the back of Daniel Guinness' neck with his hand. There wasn't much in it, but revisit the directive - was the ball the primary focus? Was the player responsible for the contact he made?

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Nolan booked O'Neill - probably the right decision - and he went on to hit Armagh's winning point.

Any refinement of a rule is open to exploitation.

In a few incidents in Sunday's match, players greatly exaggerated the level of pain they were in after contact was made. The quick glance to spot the referee's position followed by the holding of the head is the instinctive tell-tale sign.

Simulation is growing in the game at a rate few are comfortable with. So, too, the language and commentary around incidents.

BBC NI's matchday analyst Martin McHugh talked of an incident being 'technically a red card'. The lines will be blurred further until it becomes a question over whether 'contact was made'.

Say Tyrone's Brian Kennedy puts in a tackle this weekend on Antrim's Kevin Quinn, who is almost a foot shorter than him. What is that going to look like to a referee?

The following day's game between Fermanagh and Donegal has a number of strands to consider.

With Joe McQuillan appointed as referee, he has plenty of previous with Donegal captain Michael Murphy. The Cavan official sent off Murphy against Tyrone and Cork in 2015, and against the Red Hands in the 2013 National League.

Murphy suffers for his size, having to endure more punishment than most in order to win frees, but he also has a tendency to tackle with a closed fist and that will come under the microscope.

In a Gaelic football sense, this rule could have been brought in to preserve the staggering talent of a Ryan McHugh.

His low centre of gravity and ability to duck under a tackle has come at a cost - multiple concussions. Last winter, he had to sit out the Donegal Club Championship with Kilcar such was the impact of his injuries, sustained in three league games with Donegal and then in a club challenge match against St Vincent's.

He even told reporters on the All-Stars trip to Philadelphia that he had discussed a change to his style of play with his father, after reading up on how Irish rugby fly-half Johnny Sexton altered how he approached the tackle.

Will McQuillan be expected to red card the first head-high challenge on McHugh? Or by Murphy?

It's a peculiar clampdown. The logic cannot be argued with. For a while, the frequency of an opponent's hurl wrapping around the neck of an attacker has been a dangerous blight. That has to go.

And, as awareness of the dangers of concussion grows through the work of the GAA's Medical, Scientific and Welfare committee, the parameters will be skewed to reward those who exaggerate contact and feign injury.

Unloved Brennan just had to leave the Tyrone panel

Lee Brennan's departure from the Tyrone panel last week raised a number of considerations. When you delve deeper, it goes to the heart of the conundrum that many players on county squads experience.

In April, Brennan played five league games with his club, Trillick. County champions in 2015, they have a very strong sense of what their club is and are intensely loyal.

But then April passed and Brennan was left in the nether world of constant training for his county and no games for months on end.

For the National League, he got to play the second game against Mayo, but it was that defeat that forced Red Hands manager Mickey Harte to rethink his attack.

While many pundits who rarely attend Tyrone games believe he has changed their attacking philosophy, he simply switched around a few bodies. Those who are now playing further upfield - Cathal McShane, Matthew Donnelly and occasionally Peter Harte - are physically imposing and, as such, the ball sticks.

In recent times, Tyrone have tried Mark Bradley, Brennan and Ronan O'Neill in the inside line. Against more physical opponents, it hasn't been successful and being turned over had the double effect of turning those smaller attackers into smaller defenders.

After Harte settled on the new-look attack, Brennan didn't get another look in. Dropping off the panel was the only thing left for him to do unless he wanted to be trapped in a vortex of just existing as training ground fodder.

There is a necessity for some developing players to remain on a panel and bide their time. For example, Ben McDonnell couldn't make matchday panels last year but started in midfield against Derry.

Defender Michael Cassidy is another who has waited a considerable amount of time to claim a starter's jersey.

But attackers are different. They have a need to feel that they are not just wanted, but desperately wanted.

Confidence is an integral part of their game and crucial to the entire mental make-up of a forward who might be expected to pull off the unexpected.

But when you can't see any role for yourself, then why remain?

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