Malachy Clerkin: Brace for the early speedbumps in new football rules

Early use of the rules in O’Byrne Cup is likely to be stilted and confused before they bed in

Dublin’s Ciarán Kilkenny plays a handpass during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Galway. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Dublin’s Ciarán Kilkenny plays a handpass during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Galway. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

It is going to be neither original or helpful to breezily declare that the great Gaelic football rules experiment won’t end well, although this is unlikely to encumber those so inclined. By any measure, the changes to the game agreed by Central Council on Saturday are a big deal. By GAA measures, they are so ground-breaking as to make Brexit feel like a lot of fuss about nothing. The pushback will be loud and it will be sustained and there is an obvious chance it will doom the whole enterprise to failure long before Congress has to make a judgement.

Whatever about how it ends, we can say with some certainty that it won’t begin well. With the 2019 O’Byrne Cup getting underway in under a just fortnight, the already wicked blow of pre-Christmas football will come with a little extra lead in the glove. It was bad enough that players traditionally had to play these games while shaking off a heavy New Year – this time around, it’s going to be early December and they’ll still look hungover without having touched a drop.

Make no mistake, this is going to be a difficult watch from the get-go. That’s not a judgement on the rules themselves or the efforts of the committee who came up with them, it’s just reality. Two worlds will collide – the proposed ideal where possession is routinely placed in jeopardy and the brass-tacks reality in which every play is filtered through the first principle of keeping the ball. For the first while at least, it’s going to be like watching people brush their teeth with their left hand.

Paranoid

We know the chasm that exists always between rule-makers and the general populace. In sport, in life, in anything. The very fact that the suits want something generally makes the little people kick against it just by pure instinct and instead explore what else can be done. On top of which, teams are tin-hat paranoid about what everyone else is at. Infowars have nothing on intercounty football teams when it comes to conspiracy theories on their competitors.

So anyone imagining that Gaelic football will suddenly become hurling without the sticks just because Central Council have given it the nod won’t be long getting disabused of the notion. The general push behind the rules is to create more battles for possession, to see more 50/50 balls and, particularly with the kick-out now moving out to the 20-metre line, to force the play up the pitch more quickly. All fine in theory.

It will be fascinating to watch how it works in practice. Although not, admittedly, in a fortnight’s time and not in the early stages of the league come January and February, much of which is likely to be stilted and confused. Initially, in the absence of any time to work on the rules in training, players will rely on their instincts. And given what we know about modern football, those instincts are not likely to be expansive.

If the trial games are anything to go by, the rule curtailing the handpass will be circumvented mostly by teams turning around and kicking the ball backwards after the third one and starting again. The rule forcing teams to kick sideline balls forward will be met by more heavily-populated defences, now packed into a more confined area of the pitch.

One coach who oversaw a college side playing in the trial matches reckons it won’t be long before you see teams kicking strategically for touch so as to pen a corner-back in around his own 20, then overloading that side of the pitch and hunting for a turnover. Another coach involved in those games looks at the combination of an advanced kick-out, a midfield mark and an attacking mark and sees a recipe for Aussie Rules rather than football.

So no, the initial notices will not be kind. We know that. And there isn’t likely to be much let-up once the leagues kick into their middle and later rounds. If nothing else, the fact that players will have to transition back to the old rules for the championship is going to present another layer of awkwardness. How fully or genuinely will coaches commit to working on a game that won’t exist when the summer comes around?

Tepid response

And yet, and yet. There appears to be a general consensus around the fact that the game is in trouble and that something needs to change. Whether that is true or not is another day’s work but it can’t be denied that the tepid response to last summer’s championship led to this push for new ideas. So it’s a bit rich for people on the one hand to give out that football has gone to the dogs and on the other – before a ball has even been kicked – to pooh-pooh what has been a genuine, diligent, evidence-based attempt to find a solution.

Now, it may very well turn out that the committee was asking itself the wrong question all along. Certainly it looks as though they’ve attacked the symptoms of football’s ills – endless handpassing, backwards kicking, short kick-outs, all in the name of keeping possession – rather than the cause, ie the massed defences designed to force turnovers. But maybe it’s not such a bad thing to get your mistakes out of the way on your first attempt.

In time, it’s entirely possible that the success of these rule changes won’t be judged on whether they made it through Congress or not. Even if they’re killed at birth, at least the conversation has been framed now and the next stage in the game’s evolution will have them as a backdrop. In trying something this radical, the game has shown itself to be brave enough to confront its failings and admirably interested in finding a better way.

If that’s all the legacy these rules end up having, it will be plenty.

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