By PJ Cunningham
As I write this, I have many worries for the future of Gaelic football. I’ve been to three games already this year and found the sort of fare you get in early season to be an improvement on the ultra negative stuff of the past decade or so.
Yet I see the papers and RTE are wheeling out managers and players – with the suggestions that referees also agree – saying that the new rules are resulting in less goals and more defensive play.
Poppycock. The restriction of passing to three successive hand-passes means players are now having to think on their feet and take extra responsibility by no longer aimlessly flicking the ball – and the thinking – onto a colleague’s shoulders.
Secondly, I was delighted to see the leather making contact with players’ boots once again. On several occasions in the last game I attended (Laois v Wicklow in the O’Byrne Cup), players on the third pass had to kick either short or long – something the omniscient county managers had almost eradicated from the game due to their fear of losing possession.
If there are one or two mistakes in a referee’s counting ability initially, who cares? We are now starting to reshape Gaelic football as a spectacle and the naysayers who say it is making the game less appealing to supporters, are guilty of kneejerk reaction to something they are still unfamiliar with.
The essence of a good GAA match has always been the contest between players marking each other in head-to-head duels.
That responsibility vanished when systems took control of the game, eschewing such need as half a dozen players instead marked specified space ahead of the D. Sweepers were also relieved of man-marking duties and instead were expected to anticipate where the ball might land after a dispossession took place.
The new rules makes this set-piece approach much harder to be effective and the fact that there is reward for a player catching a high ball between the 45s and also when played long inside to the danger area, means some of the old fashioned beauty of the game has a decent chance of returning to our stadia.
It also could translate into people deciding to return to watch games instead of deserting what has been on offer for the past 10 years.
I hope the powers that be have the guts not to be swayed by this attempt to change their minds because if they bow the knee to such pressure, the game will be the loser.
You can understand why managers fear new rules – it means they have to go back to scratch and perfect new methods… which is what they have done with the defensive set-up which reduces a player’s chances of getting through to attempt to kick a score.
The so-called bosses of the playing game have been aided and abetted in this by the system which fails to restrict the number of hand passes that can be made.
Hand passing is arguably the lowest level skill there is in Gaelic football so there should be a limit on it that at the same time will reward those who work to perfect tougher skills like accurately kick-passing.
The new rules also speed up the game and the delivery from one end of the field to the other because the reward of a ‘mark’ for a long ball in is a great incentive to make that play.
If the Croke Park Committee is to make any adjustments, they should focus on forbidding the ball being kicked backwards – the opposite to a forward pass in rugby if you like.
I know such a suggestion will put the managers’ blood pressures cascading through their veins – but it would ensure that the long ball forward – and therefore extra man-to-man contests for the ball – would increase significantly.
It would also give extra meaning to the term teamwork. A player, who currently hand-passes to a colleague who can only kick backwards, will have to prove he has more understanding of the game in his locker or he won’t be on the team for long.
My fear is if the rule makers baulk at allowing these rules to go into the National League, they will be stillborn. Another three months of training and playing with the new rules would lead to improved skills so that the attempts to play riskier passes than three metres hand passes would improve significantly.
This weekend’s Central Council meeting will discuss the rules again, while they will also be on the agenda for Congress next month where the decision to stick or bust the new rules will be determined.
I’m not holding my breath on this one but hope the GAA surprise me by backing what they’ve come up with to give a transfusion to the ailing old game.
For the record here are the new rules:
• A team can put together no more than three consecutive hand-passes before the ball has to be played with the foot.
• All kick-outs must be taken from the 20-metre line
• All sideline kicks must be played forward unless they are from inside the opposition 20-metre line
• A player shown a black card for one of five specific cynical fouls is sent to a sin-bin for 10 minutes and is then allowed return to the game
• A player can now call a mark inside the opposition 45-metre line after a clean catch from a pass played over 20 metres from outside the ‘45’ that doesn’t touch the ground or any other player.