Sean Moran: New advantage rule in hurling brews up a predictable storm

Let’s see how the latest iteration works out before rushing to judgement

The latest attack on hurling came by stealth. While everyone was rowing over the effective introduction of black-card infractions into hurling – but not black cards – the new advantage rule was being ushered in without comment. To consternation.

You might think that getting so overheated about this misses the important point. It actually should be about the fouling and not the well-intentioned efforts to deal with it.

The fuss also relates to the chaotic way in which rules changes are introduced within the GAA. This rule was scheduled to come into force four weeks after Congress but this is daft given that Congress now takes place in February.

In future rule changes should take effect from January 1st, which allows time for pre-season tournaments (if they survive), Sigerson and Fitzgibbon followed by league fixtures to provide an acclimatisation period.

The new advantage rule, which effectively makes it more likely that frees be awarded, was introduced at last February’s Congress. It attracted little attention and was passed unanimously.

This perhaps owed something to the heated disputes over proposals to penalise cynical fouling, which ultimately got a simple majority and as a trial rule, didn’t require the weighted 60 per cent approval.

That was item 20 on the clár and the advantage rule was 21, which perhaps affected delegates’ concentration spans.

Under the new rule the circumstances in which advantage can be played are restricted to ‘the potential of goal scoring opportunity’ or ‘by creating or capitalising on time and space’. In other words, the old arrangement of sticking out an arm and seeing what might happen in five seconds (or thereabouts) was to be enforced more selectively.

Last week at the briefing session for media on the new rules, Donal Smyth, the GAA's national match officials' manager, diplomatically flagged the new arrangements.

Smyth is aware that he walks a fine line between applying rules and upholding them. So at times his comments had the air of 'On bass guitar, Mr Derek Smalls – he wrote this,' as he pointed out that referees enforce the rules; they don't create them.

He summarised the likely impact as the awarding of more frees, which is more or less what happened.

This came about because the Standing Committee on the Playing Rules decided that advantage was being played too much and coming to pass too little.

It has been a recent import into Gaelic games and on the basis that the fouled player had only five seconds to make advantage count. Previously, players could play on after a foul but they were on their own at that stage.

The problem is that it has now become part of that old bane of match regulation, ‘letting play flow’. The thinking behind this is that if advantage doesn’t actually confer advantage – and five seconds runs out quite quickly, leading to the phenomenon of the ‘slow whistle’ – why not penalise the original foul as soon as possible?

The SCPR appear to have felt that too often, advantage was being signalled speculatively to see where the five seconds would take us rather than because there was something realistically on. As a result, any theoretical opportunity was disappearing.

Greater distances

Would 10 seconds work any better? It would but there is reluctance to take the same direction as rugby with its interminable ‘advantages’, discreetly renewed by spotting new fouls along the way to help suspend disbelief?

The hurling fraternity is conscious to the point of paranoia of football rules and how they are frequently produced to spoil the small ball game but this has been introduced with hurling in mind, as the posts are accessible from far greater distances.

As things stand a goalscoring opportunity can still be ‘advantaged’ and the impact of the new rule is more likely to be felt farther out the pitch.

There is also the consideration that playing advantage effectively encourages fouling because frees are often not given and with one already on the way, it’s open season on the man in possession.

At the weekend there was the usual pile-on when new rules are introduced. The Chicken Licken tendency was seen on the Sunday Game when Shane Dowling criticised Cork referee Colm Lyons for awarding a free just as Conor Boylan was scoring a point.

But what if he’d missed?

Dónal Cusack cited Ciarán Carey's winning point for Limerick against Clare in 1996 at the Gaelic Grounds. That score said Cusack is "nearly at risk". "No risk," said Dowling. "It will be."

In that instance Carey caught the ball and ran up the field before scoring. But he was neither fouled nor on an advantage. A clever swerve caused Fergal Hegarty to lose his footing and opened up the opportunity.

In fact Carey recounted in this newspaper his memory of the score – later voted “Limerick’s top sporting moment”:

“I put the head down and away I went. I was probably hoping for an oul’ free but the longer it went on, the more it opened up for me – opened up and opened up and I had to think on my feet, change tack as the opportunity presented itself.”

The late Down All-Ireland winning captain Joe Lennon wrote a doctoral thesis on the GAA's playing rules in 2000. On page 48, he quotes Dermot Earley's views on rule changes in football: "In any change that is made, there must be one golden rule: Do Not penalise skill."

Fouling does just that and the advantage rule is at times a haphazard way of dealing with it. Let’s see how the latest iteration works out.