MOSTLY FOOTBALL: Rules are a step into the unknown

Friday, 11th January, 2019 11:03am

MOSTLY FOOTBALL: Rules are a step into the unknown

Action from the Cavan v Down match.

New trial rules have potential to radically change Gaelic football. Whether the changes would be for better or worse, who knows, writes Michael Hannon.

I’ve written before about the new rules in Gaelic football, prior to their introduction. My view was that the game needed a little bit of tinkering to improve the sport as a spectacle.

However the rules required should have been along the lines of something that incentivised a team trying to win a turnover higher up the field, rather than the series of rules the playing committee came up with. 

For example, in basketball, the back court rule, or in soccer the back pass rule to the goalkeeper, make it harder for a side to retain possession in areas closer to their own goal. 

This encourages teams to come out and hunt the opposition further out the field, and apply pressure in areas other than around their own goals. This creates action and is what Gaelic football badly needs. 

Not every team will do so, just like in soccer, but the option is there for them if they need to. Some sides in soccer, for example, play no other way; Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool and Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur are currently the most famous exponents in English football of such an approach. 

Other sides will only press when they need to get the ball back, say if they’re behind or maybe if it’s the start of a half and energy levels are high. 

Le'ts not pretend that we don’t still get drab and boring soccer games. We do. But let's not also pretend that in the world of soccer we don’t have certain sides you’d much rather pay your money to go and watch. 
Some teams always seem to be involved in exciting games, they always seem to be able to entertain. It’s hard to say, when you look at the current top sides in Gaelic football, who among them would you go to watch if you wanted to be entertained. 

I suppose Mayo, because of their approach in recent years, always tend to be involved in exciting games, rarely beating handily the Division 2 and 3 sides they should be able to brush aside and then yet being able to match Dublin, Kerry and Tyrone physcially when they do battle with the crème de la crème. 

Even Dublin, for as good as they are, their ruthless efficiency makes their games something of a procession and dare I say it, boring for the neutral. 

Not that it's theirs or Jim Gavin's fault of course.

Anyway, that lack of competitiveness and the game as a spectacle are two very different things even if they both feed into the entertainment factor. Besides, I don’t think when the rules committee sat down to devise their rule changes that the dominance of Dublin was high on their agenda, nor should it have been. 

If we take the rule changes as being purely about the spectacle of the sport, it’s now worth considering, a few games into their introduction, whether or not they’re improving that spectacle. 

Last weekend, I headed over to the Kildallan football club to catch Mickey Graham’s Cavan take on the students of Queens University Belfast. 

These early season games exist on a spectrum somewhere between a glorified challenge match and a trial game for new faces on the panel. 

What struck me first was that throughout the game, rising up from the terrace, you could hear counts of “one, two three, kick it!”.

You could also hear it from the sidelines and from the players on the field. Most players seemed to play the game with a constant ticker inside their head keeping track of the hand-passing sequence. 

Apparently the number of handpasses per game has increased drastically in the past decade. But with nowhere to kick the ball thanks to the advent of mass defences, the only way to penetrate into the scoring zone is with the much-maligned handpass. 

Who is to blame, then, the teams and coaches who have reverted to over-using the handpass, or the guardians of rules of the game which make it difficult to win back possession anywhere other than in a  crowded mass defence? 

One of the noticeable consequences last Sunday was the increase in the number of solos taken by players in the middle third. Rather than waste a handpass or put a team-mate under pressure with a third handpass, players opted to solo the ball through the middle third when they thought it was safe to do so. 

Now, here’s the thing, good teams don’t solo the ball in the middle third when they’re attacking. Dublin, for example, will solo the ball in that middle third when they are going backwards with the ball and recycling possession to change the approach of an attack, but when they’re on all-out counter-attacking mode, the ball gets moved through that middle third of the field going from player to player with only the odd hop of the ball taking place before it gets released to the next man. 

Soloing the ball sees the player turn his head down to the ground and slows up the release. Repeatedly soloing the ball because you’re afraid to handpass it and have no-one to kick it to certainly doesn’t improve the spectacle of the game. 

As for the mark, I feel it has the potential to fundamentally change the game more than anything else the rules committee has proposed. Watching last Sunday's game, it was apparent that sides haven’t truly warmed up to just how devastating a rule it could be. And here's why. One of the interesting things that have happened in Gaelic football over the past decade is that the average body type has become the dominant one among sides. 

With so many sides playing with mass defences, teams needed guys who could all cover ground. With many teams, when you cast your eye over them, it was becoming a case of everyone beginning to look the same; an homogeneous prototype player emerged. 

As the game required better aerobic and better anaerobic fitness levels, natural selection determined that those who had a certain body shape and size would dominate. 

But the trial rules got me wondering if all that could be about to change. A mark is as good as a free. That powerful, well-sized inside forward, who doesn’t have to run much but has good hands and good feet, might be about to become vogue again if this particular rule is maintained. 

The problem is there aren’t too many of those guys playing the game at the inter-county level right now. 

In Rugby Union, there are specialist players with specialist body types lining out in specialist positions. The mark, were it retained, could evolve in a number of different directions to see such specialising being aped in Gaelic football. 

Then tactically the game could move in so many different directions. Dublin are famed for emptying their bench around the 50th minute to pull away from the opposition but imagine an opposition manager throwing on the three biggest giants in his county into the full-forward line against an undersized Dublin full-back line after all the Dublin subs have been used... 

It's doubtful such players are even currently involved in inter-county panels hence my assertion that teams haven’t even warmed up to how devastating a rule it could be. 

And even still and with all that said, I wonder will all of this even improve the sport as a spectacle, or will it just turn the attacking part of the game into something that resembles Australian rules.

Food for thought.

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