Seán Moran: Congress makes short work of serious motions

Is this the best way to make permanent changes to the rules of a sporting body?

Happy that the Tier 2 football championship that he had championed had made it into the Official Guide, GAA president John Horan struck a somewhat more quizzical note when reacting to the decisions taken by Saturday's special congress in Páirc Uí Chaoimh to endorse rule changes in football – and specifically the forward mark.

“I thought the debate on that would have been far more comprehensive, probably a little more divisive than it actually was. You saw the level of debate. We are where we are. That’s the democracy we have, that’s what we produce. So we have to move on.”

The world of GAA democracy as expressed through congress was again on display and again indications that this is probably not the best way for a large organisation to conduct its business.

For quite a while the shortcomings of the model, which gathers around 350 delegates – a couple of hundred fewer for special congresses like the weekend’s – to discuss changes to rules and policy have been apparent.

Concentration spans can be hard to engage for long periods: for instance, everyone remembers the motion to forbid drinking from trophies by drilling holes in them slipping through at the end of a heavy Saturday afternoon session.

This time around the motions list hadn’t been particularly demanding – five to be decided in the afternoon after a morning of workshops and a presentation of games development. The first two were to do with the new tiered football championship and consumed most of the oxygen in the atmosphere.

It is maybe unfair to be too judgemental about declining levels of attention when the venue was at one end of the country, entailing long journeys home for many delegations, as pared-back special congresses don’t involve banquets and overnights on the Saturday.

Even so, the speed with which the three rule changes whizzed through took most people, and not just the president, by surprise.

Little debate

There was little debate and just a few concerns expressed about changes, which will impact significantly on the game. Even the 20-metre kick-out – the least contentious of the rules (83 per cent in favour) – changes how teams set up defensively as it compresses the play and will militate against the uncontested re-start, simply because there is less space into which to kick the ball.

But it was the other two, the sin bin and the forward mark, which create the greatest difficulties.

David Hassan, who has been combing chairing the Standing Committee on the Playing Rules (SCPR) with the patience of a saint, continued his mission to inform with evidence-based argument by disclosing that the 10-minute sin bin had thrown up a disparity of nearly 0-3 to 0-1 against the handicapped team. This formed the basis of the contention that the new rule wasn't a roll-back on discipline.

As ever with the SCPR the data was scrupulously compiled from 30 league matches across the four divisions, featuring every county at least once and presented several times to Central Council, but there is a legitimate concern that the deterrent value may have significantly lapsed.

The problem with the sanction is that it shifts responsibility from the individual, who ultimately makes the moral choice, to the collective. Previously if you wanted to commit one of the proscribed cynical fouls, you took the rap – permanent replacement for the rest of the match and literally, by taking one for the team.

The new dispensation means that the team takes one for you by having to cover for your absence for 10 minutes and although the stats indicate a two-point penalty, we also have the evidence of big matches – as recently as last month's drawn All-Ireland final in which a team reduced to 14 for around four times the length of a sin bin managed to survive.

Players consulted on the subject were strongly in favour of the change – and little wonder.

Deterrent value

Anecdotally, the idea that it holds the same deterrent value is contradicted by Dublin's corner back Davy Byrne, who only last week signalled approval for that change if not the others.

“I like the sin bin, that’s from a players’ perspective, because if you get a black card your whole All-Ireland final could be over, so that seems good. The other ones, I’m not sure.”

Like other players, he was attracted by the more lenient nature of the sanction.

Interestingly, debate on the matter focused far more on the threat of malingering to run down the clock and so adding cynicism to cynicism but no-one raised the issue of proportionality.

In the words of Paul Earley, who was prominent in piloting the original black card provision through annual congress in 2013 and who has criticised the introduction of a time-based penalty without a stop clock: "First and foremost, I don't think 10 minutes for a blatant, cynical foul is an appropriate punishment."

There have also been reservations about the forward mark, expressed tellingly by former Croke Park referees' manager Pat Doherty, who queried the burden on match officials of having to measure out in their heads 20-metre kicked passes inside the 45 and expressed concern about the stop-start implications for football.

It probably won’t exert intolerable pressure if the trial period of the league, when execution of the tactic was fitful, is anything to go by but it needed to be teased out a bit more convincingly than was the case during the debate, considering that this is now a permanent part of football’s playing rules and will require a 60 per cent vote to discontinue.

So, delegates got ready to go home with the rules debates wrapped up in around half an hour.

Former GAA director general Páraic Duffy’s comments on congress nearly 10 years ago bear repeating.

“There is this incredible sense of democracy, that everyone has a stake in everything that happens. I’m not sure it’s the best way of doing things but it’s a very democratic model.”