RULES OF EN­GAGE­MENT

If some­thing is bro­ken you have to fix it says Colm O’Rourke

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - COLM O’ROURKE

SO the GPA have thrown the toys out of the pram again. They were not happy that the GAA de­cided to go ahead with ex­per­i­ments on rule changes. This de­spite hav­ing their own rep­re­sen­ta­tive, David Collins, on the com­mit­tee.

In de­mand­ing an im­me­di­ate meet­ing with the GAA pres­i­dent John Ho­ran, the GPA must have felt they know best when it comes to any changes with any­thing to do with the game of foot­ball. Ho­ran agreed to the “ur­gent” meet­ing with GPA chief ex­ec­u­tive Paul Flynn. It was hardly go­ing to be a shoot-out at the OK Cor­ral but maybe Ho­ran re­minded his Dublin friend of who ex­actly runs the show.

Any­way, peace has bro­ken out again and there will be a re­view of the new rules be­fore the league, when we will all have had a chance to see them in ac­tion and de­cided for our­selves. Per­son­ally, I would have been happy to go on with­out a re­view so soon.

But the fact that county play­ers were so over­whelm­ingly against some of the changes, par­tic­u­larly the limit on con­sec­u­tive hand­passes, got me think­ing.

Who does the game be­long to? Is it the prop­erty of the elite play­ers? Should they de­cide what the rules are and what way the game should be played? Have the man­agers of county teams a big­ger say than the or­di­nary Joe sup­porter who pays into games ev­ery week­end? Has the club player any say at all? What role have all the jour­nal­ists, ex-play­ers and gen­eral fac­to­tums who com­men­tate on matches ev­ery week? Are their opin­ions not valid too?

Where does the GPA fit into this hi­er­ar­chy and are they of greater im­por­tance than the Club Play­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion who get no of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion, no money but try to rep­re­sent the views and con­cerns of 98 per cent of play­ers?

County play­ers have a role in this but the ob­vi­ous con­clu­sion from their po­si­tion is that they see noth­ing wrong with a bor­ing game which is com­pletely dom­i­nated by hand­pass­ing, one which the pub­lic are get­ting fed up with. Noth­ing to re­port here, say the play­ers.

The past few years have seen a grad­ual de­cline in the pop­u­lar­ity of foot­ball. Don’t take my word for it. Tele­vi­sion view­ing fig­ures are head­ing south. Should the au­thor­i­ties in Croke Park have sat idly by and al­lowed the house to burn down?

In the last few years var­i­ous com­men­ta­tors have made a va­ri­ety of sug­ges­tions to im­prove the an­cient game which was go­ing down a road few seemed to en­joy. In that time I can­not re­call any­one writ­ing or com­ment­ing that the game was healthy and a won­der­ful spec­ta­cle. In gen­eral, it was quite the op­po­site, even al­low­ing for the odd very ex­cit­ing match like some of the Dublin-Mayo games.

From that de­scent of foot­ball into a mon­grel ver­sion of the old game, the rules body set up by Ho­ran got down to work. Not just on opin­ions but also on re­view­ing sta­tis­ti­cal data from games go­ing back to 2011. You did not have to be Ein­stein to fig­ure out that kick-pass­ing had de­clined and hand­pass­ing had taken over.

The ra­tio of hand to kick passes was get­ting near four to one. Take away kick-outs, frees and side­lines and foot­ball had be­come to­tally a hand­ball game. Some play­ers never kick the ball any­more. Is that what peo­ple want?

Not ac­cord­ing to all sur­veys, but I’m with the suits on this one. Maybe they should have thrown the play­ers a big­ger bone by al­low­ing such an im­por­tant group a veto. Of greater in­ter­est to me was why some­one from the Club Play­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion was not in­volved in the dis­cus­sions. After all, they rep­re­sent most who will be af­fected by these rule changes if they go the dis­tance.

When it comes to the specifics of the rule changes I would not dis­agree with any­thing in­volved — ex­cept that they don’t go far enough. At least it is a start. One of the guid­ing prin­ci­ples in­volved was that more con­tests for posses­sion should be en­cour­aged. Hence side­line kicks should go for­ward. This was based on sound rea­son­ing as data showed the ma­jor­ity of these kicks are go­ing back­wards. But if side­line kicks must go for­ward then in my view the same should have hap­pened with frees, ev­ery­where on the pitch, ex­cept in­side

The GAA at cen­tral level have made a mor­tal en­emy of the CPA

the 20-me­tre line. It would en­sure more con­tests for posses­sion, more turnovers and stop this racket of giv­ing the ball back to the goal­keeper and then the 46 hand­passes in a row which he starts while the op­po­si­tion line up across the pitch in some pre-de­ter­mined de­fen­sive struc­ture. A bit like the Siegfried line of the first World War, with­out the shelling and the mus­tard gas.

Many com­men­ta­tors worry about the ref­er­ees’ abil­ity to count to three in de­ter­min­ing hand­passes. One of the top refs who went to the ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion to which I’m at­tached would hardly share their con­cerns. Count­ing to three is ac­tu­ally part of the pri­mary school cur­ricu­lum and while ref­er­ees are not ex­am­ined in their tests on count­ing, I think we can safely as­sume that count­ing to three is within their ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Of course there will be mis­takes and there will be plenty of oohs, aahs and f ***s if a player puts a col­league through for an open goal on the fourth hand­pass and the ref­eree gives a free out. The rules com­mit­tee will need to keep their heads down when this hap­pens, and it will. I saw it hap­pen with my own two dodgy eyes in one of the trial matches.

Yet lim­it­ing hand­pass­ing works well in the in­ter­na­tional rules games so there is no good rea­son why it won’t work in our game. Of course there are two ref­er­ees in that par­tic­u­lar code and this was a great op­por­tu­nity missed by not get­ting two men with whis­tles for this ex­per­i­men­tal pe­riod. Noth­ing ven­tured, noth­ing gained.

Nat­u­rally, when this sug­ges­tion is made there are many who like to make state­ments like, ‘You can’t get one good ref, how could you get two?’ This is part of the nor­mal level of pub­lic opin­ion. Pub­lic opin­ion in the GAA is usu­ally wrong and if any­one were to base their moves on the whim of the pub­lic then the train would never move out of neu­tral.

Those who take cal­cu­lated risks de­ter­mine progress in all aspects of life. The rules body are do­ing that and even if I think they erred grossly on the side of cau­tion, they at least made de­ci­sions. Those who op­pose change would al­low the game to wither away and find good rea­son to do noth­ing.

The only play­ers who don’t ap­pear to be to­tally para­noid about the changes are Dublin. The jokes that hand­pass re­stric­tion will de­com­mis­sion Ciarán Kilkenny and his friends could spec­tac­u­larly back­fire. These changes will suit Dublin much bet­ter than any team as they can kick bet­ter than any other side. So be care­ful what you wish for.

When the Dubs get to the third hand­pass they, like all oth­ers, may just turn and kick the ball back­wards; this rule change can­not pre­vent that. Only a rule — as in bas­ket­ball — where you could not play the ball back over half­way would solve that one but putting some­thing like that in at this time could mean in­for­ma­tion over­load and the GPA would need more ex­penses for that.

In do­ing some good by in­tro­duc­ing these new rules last week­end, the Cen­tral Coun­cil missed an op­por­tu­nity to do even more good. The worst de­ci­sion by a coun­try mile that was made last week, and has hardly got any at­ten­tion, was throw­ing out the mo­tion from Roscom­mon look­ing to have a fresh look at fix­tures.

What sort of peo­ple could just turn their backs on this pro­gres­sive move? What was there to lose? The GAA at cen­tral level have made a mor­tal en­emy of the CPA by their carry-on. This could end in tears. It was dis­ap­point­ing that the GPA did not vent their dis­plea­sure over this.

That mo­tion should have been car­ried unan­i­mously but there are many GAA of­fi­cials who want to scut­tle the CPA rather than show a bit of kind­ness.

The ba­sic re­quest was that a group would get to­gether who would take the blank-can­vas ap­proach to draw­ing up a com­plete fix­ture list and then re­port back to Cen­tral Coun­cil. Ob­vi­ously all the power blocks — like the provin­cial coun­cils — de­cided that this was too big a threat to coun­te­nance as it might step on their del­i­cate toes. Shame on you all. Tin­ker­ing with the edges of a bro­ken sys­tem solves noth­ing. That is all that is hap­pen­ing now.

When Páraic Duffy tried to free up April it may have been the right in­ten­tion but it was doomed to fail­ure with­out a cen­tral au­thor­ity over­see­ing all fix­tures. On this mo­tion the GPA should have been com­ing out with all guns blaz­ing in sup­port of the CPA. In­stead they tried to shoot the rules mes­sen­ger. They missed that tar­get un­less Cen­tral Coun­cil cave in. Could hap­pen too.

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