Brace for the early speed­bumps in new foot­ball rules

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Sports - Malachy Clerkin

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

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. Fas­ci­nat­ing 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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