Darragh Ó Sé: There's way too much democracy in the GAA

When other sports change rules there is never any of this carry-on

Six months after the introduction of the mark, I'd say it's probably time I came out of the woodwork to tell anybody that has a problem with it that it could have been worse. The mark as we've seen it through the league and now in the early days of the championship is fine and people generally seem happy enough with it. But what very few people know is that one of the original proposals we talked about on the Playing Rules Committee was for all kick-outs to have to go beyond the 45.

Now, this might not be a very popular view but I still think that should be part of the rule. We’ve seen the mark work to a certain extent but in all honesty, it’s only tinkering around the edges a small bit. Has it brought back high fielding? Only up to a point. To me, insisting on the ball going beyond the 45 would have been a real game-changer.

But if there’s one thing being on the Rules Committee has taught me, it’s that in the GAA, you have to always, always side with what you think is possible. Everything we do on that committee, all the discussions we have and ideas we put forward are overshadowed by one constant question – would it make it through Congress?

Congress is the big shadow hanging over everything

I wasn't sure what to expect when I got a call a few years ago asking would I go on the GAA's Playing Rules Committee. But I must say, I've found it an interesting experience. The different viewpoints of fellas from all around the country would open your eyes to things. Jim Murray from Antrim is on the committee and he'd often look at an issue from a totally different perspective to me. It's just a matter of coming from different backgrounds.


Progressive and enlightened

A guy I have found to be very progressive and enlightened is John Tobin from Galway. When it comes to looking around corners and finding pitfalls before they find us, John is a very clever thinker.

He proposed an idea one time that we should make the Sigerson and secondary schools competitions a trial ground for the different rule changes we came up with. It would be good on two levels, he said. One, young guys adapt quicker to rule changes because the old rules aren't as ingrained in them as they would be with guys in their late-20s. And two, once you have a trial period, the footage from it can be used to help when you're making your case to get the rule change through Congress.

Congress is the big shadow hanging over everything. The need for the two-thirds majority has changed now – the line stands at 60 per cent to get anything through – so hopefully that will ease the way for things to be easier to get through from here on out. But at times on the committee, you’re half-thinking is there any point even talking about some of these changes. Are we wasting our time altogether?

Frank Murphy told a story one night we were gathered about a Westmeath delegate who was putting a motion before Congress. Somewhere in the middle of his spiel, the Westmeath lad had a throwaway line that made everybody in the hall laugh. It wasn't the joke of the century now but this is Congress we're talking about – by Saturday afternoon, fellas haven't laughed since their wives told them to go easy on the porter as they walked out the door on Friday morning.

Distracted room

The upshot was that some delegates got distracted, some who were only half-listening in the first place drifted off altogether and bit by bit, the Westmeath delegate lost the room. By the time they came around to the vote, he was undermined. It only took a few fellas to stop paying attention and his two-thirds majority was gone.

Not enough people took his proposal seriously and so something that had gone through layers and layers of thought and preparation just disappeared into thin air. Frank was telling us that the delegate hadn’t even meant to make a joke, that it just came out the wrong way but it was the difference between the motion getting through and failing.

The mark has brought back a certain amount of high fieldin

The point of the story was that this is what you’re up against. Frank Murphy is a great man to have on the committee because he knows the rules inside-out and he has a feel for what can be done and what has no chance. Ultimately, that’s what happened to the idea of the kick-out having to go beyond the 45.

I felt it would have been a crucial part of the rule. Yes, it would have been a radical step but I don’t see that as a bad thing. The mark has brought back a certain amount of high fielding but this would surely mean more of it. That has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

But we didn’t go for it in the end and it made complete sense for us not to. Our feeling was that we were going to have enough on our hands getting the mark itself through Congress without throwing another element into the mix alongside it. If we did that, we’d only be giving Congress something extra to find fault with and the whole thing would fall down.

Doomed idea

That has been the main downside to the whole thing. It’s very demotivating sometimes when you know from the outset that you’re doomed to failure with an idea. It would make you feel that there’s far too much democracy in the GAA sometimes.

I looked around to see how other sports change their rules and there's never any of this carry-on. Soccer and rugby change rules all the time and there’s never a word about it. There’s no crying on radio phone-ins, there’s no moaning out of managers or players. The rule changes and everybody just gets on with it.

I honestly can't see why we don't do the same in the GAA. Why not trust guys like John Tobin and Seán Boylan and Jarlath Burns and Frank Murphy to be in charge of the rules? I think they should just say to them, "Right lads, you have this responsibility, use it wisely."

Because believe me – these guys take their work seriously. Our guiding principle is always how can we make the game more attractive to watch. Be that counteracting the blanket defence, give players more reward for expressing the skills of the game, whatever. Anything we can change to help that is worth talking about.

We have talked about a heap of different rule changes and teased them out before coming to the conclusion that they just wouldn’t work for one reason or another. We’ve talked about limiting the number of consecutive handpasses. We’ve talked about teams having to keep a certain amount of players at one end of the pitch.

Rigorous process

In the end, we weighed it up and found too many arguments against them to go forward with them. It’s a rigorous process. I don’t see why the GAA couldn’t just hand rule-making lock, stock and barrel over to the committee and let that be the end of it. No need for Congress, no need for all that energy to be used up chasing votes for this motion or that one. I think it would fix things much quicker and make the GAA far more flexible.

And more to the point, it would lessen the amount of time people have to go moaning about everything under the sun. Look at the black card. People were giving out about the black card for a year before it came in. Getting it through Congress became such a big job that Eugene McGee was in tears when the vote went through. This is a rule change in a sport – it shouldn’t carry that level of stress with it.

Players adapt. I always found that when I was playing

A few weeks ago, the council cut down some trees in Tralee. They were popular trees with some people and they were cut down overnight. There was a big hullabaloo about it but after a couple of days it was over and done with. Life moved on. That’s how it should be with playing rules. Do it, get on with it, don’t give people time to moan and cry about it.

Players adapt. I always found that when I was playing. If a new rule came in, it was actually an interesting exercise to work out where the loophole was. I know why managers always give out – they think they have enough to be worrying about without hoping and praying that Johnny and Mikey know their way around the rulebook. But actually, I always find that players cop on to these things quicker than anyone.

We’ll keep at it. The emails have been flying around for the next meeting of the rules committee and we’ll keep talking and coming up with ways to move the game forward over the coming years.

Congress permitting, of course.