GAA faced a no-win task in implementing rule changes
“Referees must have a degree in applied mathematics,” according to Eamon McGee
GAA headquarters Croke Park. Rule changes mean sideline balls can only be kicked forward rather than laterally or towards a team’s own goal
On Saturday evening the GAA’s Central Council voted to pass a series of proposals which will radically alter how Gaelic football is played in next year’s Allianz league. The response was swift and ranged from guarded approval to heavy scepticism.
Michael Lundy, who played for Corofin in Sunday’s Connacht championship game, issued a tweet that read: “They might as well change the name of the sport with these rule changes.” Eamon McGee, a former Donegal player whose club Gweedore will play in next Sunday’s Ulster final, messaged: “Referees must have a degree in applied mathematics.”
The members of the standing committee on playing rules who drafted the proposals were probably braced for the reaction. In a way they were faced with a no-win task: to try and implement changes that would direct Gaelic football away from what was regarded by some commentators as an over-reliance on the handpass and a defensively-oriented approach to games.
That Central Council passed the proposals indicates a concern about the state of Gaelic football and a de facto admission that there is something “wrong” with the game in its current guise. Of the five rule changes that will come into play, two are straightforward.
Sideline balls can only be kicked forward rather than laterally or towards a team’s own goal. The argument against this is that it encourages the defending team to drop back in order to limit the options for the player taking the sideline ball. Whether it works or not won’t have a significant impact on the overall shape of the game.
The introduction of the sin-bin, where a black card will mean a 10- minute absence for the offending player, is a straightforward attempt to deal with the issue of persistent and cynical fouling.
The big change revolves around the rule restricting the team in possession to three consecutive handpasses. It was, David Hassan, the committee chairman acknowledged in October, devised to try and combat the “chain of handpassing” that has come to dominate the game. It will, he predicated, “require that players and coaches change the way they use the handpass”.
The hope is that it will encourage teams towards a more direct kicking game. The fear is that the opposite will occur. Coaches and players see the handpass as the safest –and most accurate – way to transfer the ball from one to another at close quarters. Frequent, swift, handpass interplay has been developed by teams as the only way to play through the deep, zonal defensive set-ups that opposition teams employ to thwart offensive play.
The trend in recent seasons, of teams patiently and endlessly recycling the ball just beyond the zone of defensive pressure won’t change because they team in possession must kick pass the ball after every third pass. But once that team does try to beat a mass defence, the players will have to be conscious of the sequence of passes involved in a move that is taking place in real time.
While it is true that coaches will come up with drills to try and facilitate this, it is also true that defensively coaches will train their teams to try exploit the obligation on the team in possession to use the kick pass: that they will jump or trap the player at the end of the chain of three hand passes and force either a turnover or a wild kick pass.
However, the implementation of the advanced mark, which will allow a player the option of a free kick – or shot at goal – for a ball caught cleanly from a pass kicked from inside the attacking team’s 45 – will represent the biggest fundamental change throughout the league.
The hope is that it will encourage a return to the more direct long-range kicking game that commentators fear is disappearing. The fear is that it will instigate an even more cautious defensive approach from managers fearful of leaving marksmen with a free shot at goal.
Central Council’s amendment to the kickout proposal significantly softens a suggested change designed to obligate teams to set up along more traditional lines: the new rule stipulates that while the kickout must be taken from the 20 metre line, the ball does not have to pass the 45 metre line.
The new rules are guaranteed to become a talking point throughout next year’s Allianz league. They are at the heart of a struggle between a constituency which believes that Gaelic football needs to return to its catch and kick origins and those who believe that its evolution is both positive and inevitable.
The confirmation of planned discussions at the January meeting of the Ard Comhairle on the introduction of a “second-tier” All-Ireland football championship was another indication of major changes in the future of the game’s marquee competition.
Whether the rule changes assist in prompting teams towards a more direct and attack-minded approach or inadvertently contribute to a more cautious and possession-based approach will only become apparent through what promises to be an interesting and incident-laden national league.
And one thing is for certain: life is not about to become any easier for referees.