In case you didn’t know, the game of football is dying as a spectacle while the game of hurling thrives.
That’s the general consensus among the GAA illuminati, or so we’re told. The widely-publicised new football playing rules will be trialled in next year's early season provincial competitions and also throughout the National League. With so many changes happening all at once it represents the biggest ever alteration to the rules of Gaelic football across the game's lifetime.
The stated aim of the rules committee was to see more one-on-one battles returning to the game and everything they’ve come up with seems to have been predicated on achieving this.
Here’s whats going to happen: players who have been conditioned to think and play a certain way are suddenly going to have new restrictions imposed on them and we will be left with an incredible amount of frustration for all involved.
Either teams and managers adapt quickly or else such frustrations will be left to foster and grow. If the latter happens, if there is any merit in these rule changes, we might not get to realise them when the time comes to decide what to keep and what to discard.
Evidence from the small number of college and school games that have already trialled out these rule changes is that the change in the conditioning of players' mindsets over the past 20 years is not going to suddenly revert now that the rules have been altered. What I’m talking about here is the concept of retaining possession.
I had a conversation with someone last week regarding the differences in football and hurling and noted how tactically the game of hurling has developed along a timeline that lags approximately five years behind that of football.
While hurling was a game of catch and hit, it has slowly become a game of precision and ball retention. With defensive structures being utilised, sides have had no other option. Derek McGrath played with a sweeper at Waterford and the purists went crazy.
After a few seasons of pucking sliotars down the sweeper's throat, sides stopped doing this. Davy Fitzgerald also flirted with the sweeper system but his Wexford team resembled Donegal in 2012. His sweeper was not just used as a defensive lynchpin but as a counter-attacking threat running up the field to create overlaps and a short passing game that mirrored that of Donegal's.
The net result was that at times, Wexford under Fitzgerald looked like Karl Lacey, Frank McGlynn et al, only in helmets.
Now you really couldn’t afford to hit ball down the sweeper's throat because not only were they not going to hit it back, but they were going to do damage to you at the other end, too. The thing that has saved hurling from the same criticism of football is the size of the ball.
You can more than occasionally beat a retreating blanket with a good 80-metre puck down the field while the ability to put the sliotar over the bar from 65 metres means sometimes you don’t even have to. Not even 15 bodies back behind the ball can stop that.
So it seems we have reached a point where the two games, Gaelic football and hurling, are diverging in different directions. Because outside of the fact that hurling saw you carry a hurl and use a smaller ball, the rules, for the longest time, were more or less the same as football.
Now, there is a fear that all this change in football might actually make the game a worse spectacle rather than a better one. The single biggest rule is the introduction of the kick after three handpasses. Players are not going to want to kick the ball away just because they have completed three handpasses. That mindset of holding onto possession isn’t going to change just because the rules have.
In some of those recent school games where the rules were tested, players began to kick the ball after two handpasses rather than risk taking the third and then having to force a kick under pressure to no-one. The interesting thing was that after two handpasses most players opted to kick the ball sideways or backwards because the forward kickpass wasn’t on. The result was a game that was slow and lethargic.
Two handpasses, nothing on, turn around and kick it back. Two hand passes, nothing on, turn around and kick it sideways. Two hand passes, nothing on, take a solo...
The ball took longer to travel up the field and that only allowed the opposition time to funnel men back. The idea of reducing the number of handpasses is, I suppose, an admirable one, but the reason for the proliferation of handpasses is not because players love handpassing, but rather because of mass defensive structures.
In turn, the reason for those is because its hard to dispossess a player in Gaelic games given the rules of the tackle. But blanket defensive structures allow you to out-number the opposition in a given area of the field and turnovers can be won.
I’ve written before that a better way of fixing the woes of Gaelic games would’ve been to incentivise sides to win the ball in other areas of the pitch but the rules committee have gone with a different approach.
So, here’s the thing that coaches are going to have to do if they want to be successful under these new rules. They need to figure out how many forwards and defenders do they have to play with in order to win games. Armagh, under Joe Kernan, figured out that by playing with just four forwards and the the other 20 outfield players defending and counter-attacking, they could win an All-Ireland.
Tyrone, Kerry and Cork copied this. Then we had Donegal. They figured out all they needed was two forwards with everyone else defending and counter-attacking. Then they reduced that down to one forward and Tyrone followed suit, sometimes playing with no forwards.
With the need to kick the ball after three handpasses, teams are going to slowly have to get their heads around the idea that they’re going to have to play with more men up the pitch. But how many more? You still need to mind the house.
If coaches and managers start experimenting with this early, then they might just be able to make the most of these new rules. And maybe perhaps players will be able to retain possession and play an attacking brand of football at the same time.
However if what the rules committee want is to turn football into a version of hurling's 'catch it and puck it as far as you can back from whence it came', then they’re going to be disappointed.
Because if they’ve been watching closely at all, hurling doesn’t even do that anymore.
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