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Fight against pitch battles boosted

By Declan Bogue

A strange day in Ballybofey last weekend.

Ever since the last ball was kicked in the National League at the end of March, this Championship has been a long time coming. You get a sense of teams by going to the Championship launch and their various press evenings, but you only get a superficial sense, mind.

After heading to Kingspan Breffni Park on a glorious Friday evening with cherry blossoms lining the roads of south Ulster, we listened intently to Cavan players and management talk of their ambitions for the preliminary round. The language of war was dusted down, they "knew they would be in for a battle" and recognised that "we will get handed nothing".

However, Cavan arrived with little else than a white flag.

Surely there must be a mistake. Is this not the Ulster Championship?

There was a time when the opening Ulster fixture was the one that disgusted the cognoscenti.

I think of Derry and Monaghan in 2009. Or the first sight of Donegal defensive under Jim McGuinness as they creaked past Antrim in 2011.

God bless them, but they had the lads down below in the television studios frothing at the mouth, comparing it to another game from elsewhere in the country that featured lovely scores, great skills and porous defences as something Ulster sides could aspire to.

That it was Galway and Mayo that got this treatment on Sunday shows how far we are through the looking glass.

Surely something must have contaminated the purist's province in Connacht, and so they had their bogeyman by drawing attention to the fact that Galway trainer Paddy Tally is from Tyrone. TYRONE!

Back to Ballybofey, and Donegal's instant response to Cavan's goal was to run up 1-6 without reply to give themselves a seven point cushion.

Now, there was a time when teams would find a way to slow a run like this down. Donegal themselves in the earlier part of this decade were masters of it.

Given that a game can only be stopped for an injury if it is to the head, you can imagine my surprise in the 2013 Ulster semi-final against Down, how, after Conor Laverty won a free for Donal O'Hare to narrow the gap, the Donegal defender who fouled him went down holding his head to gain a stoppage. Laverty, a good six or maybe seven inches shorter, never made any contact with his head whatsoever.

That's one way. Another way is the good old 'getting a row going'. This leads to a long break in play, players losing control and running the risk of a red card and composure going out the window.

The contribution of Referees Development Chairman Willie Barrett last week was a clever development.

At a pre-Championship gathering of the media he outlined in simple terms that two opponents wrestling with each other is fine, the referee can deal with that. But the third man in will get a red card.

There hasn't been a change to an existing rule, but they have flagged it up now and on the first weekend of the Championship it was notable how few incidents of this nature occurred.

It is quite possible that by the middle of July and the first edition of the Super 8's, this will be sufficiently relaxed.

This is normally the way with the Championship season - the bigger the game, the more is let go.

Take the pairing of Galway and Mayo.

In the earlier league game between the two, over 20 players got involved in the total mayhem of a row underneath the stand. It looked like all these things do in Gaelic football - pathetic machismo, ultimately futile and so Goddamn ugly.

Last Sunday, there were few flashpoints and no melees.

For the time being at least, the re-iterating of the third man in rule has two effects. It makes it more difficult to manufacture a prolonged stoppage in the game - and anything that makes cheating more difficult has to be welcomed - and it makes it more difficult to drag players more concerned with the finer points of the game to be bullied.

If Gaelic football realises it has an image problem, then hurling has to make a similar journey.

It's been over four years since the great Eddie Keher of Kilkenny made the odd claim that: "I abhor the whole ritual of showing cards to our hurlers. It's a pompous and triumphalist exercise causing humiliation to our great players in front of their families, friends and supporters."

Whatever about the dreamy aspirations of such a belief, it was then and even more so now, completely incorrect.

Scenes such as a packed ambulance ferrying Antrim hurlers to the hospital after their meeting with Carlow is simply unacceptable, as were the nature of two of the injuries.

Eddie wouldn't like it and it would have sounded fanciful in the past, but it's time for hurling to scrub up its act.

Belfast Telegraph

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