Signs are there that maybe, just maybe, this might work
Could this actually work ? That question must have sprung to the minds of thousands of GAA followers as they watched the unfolding drama that was the Tyrone-Dublin game in Croke Park.
What sparked their questioning nature was not the magic of the lighting spectacular in the great old stadium but the events unfolding on the field of play beforehand.
Specifically asking the question were two categories of GAA people. There were those who never even thought about the new experimental rules or those who read about them but cast them aside as merely another bit of tinkering by a crowd of GAA academics far removed from the reality of day-to-day football games. After all, GAA people have been sick and tired looking at so-called experimental rules every spring for donkeys' years and none of them ever seeing the light of day when the big rollers of the GAA, the managers, decided they did not want any of this carry-on.
But then came Saturday's game on the last day of January and we look at the final scoreline: Tyrone 1-18 Dublin 1-16. Even more significant was that Tyrone scored 1-16 from play and Dublin 1- 12. These are truly remarkable statistics, so unusual for a game between these teams in modern times that some will undoubtedly regard it as a one-off freak. But it wasn't, you know.
The reason for the fluidity, the high number of scores and the relatively low number of interruptions because of frees was the implementation of the new rules by the referee Marty Duffy, who it must be said gave a brilliant expose of the whole rationale behind the proposed rule changes.
I counted about a dozen situations in this game where, under the old regime, players would have conceded frees in order to stop the play but under the threat of the new carding system the players involved held back. This applied in particular to personal contests taking place in the middle third of the field when, as we have seen so often, players deliberately foul to intercept a passing movement at source, stop the play and deprive the team with ball of positive attacking options. Instead a free is given which leaves both teams in a 50-50 situation.
The threat of receiving the first black card is serious under the new system. And the penalty for getting a yellow card is very serious indeed, almost as serious as a red card. The nett result is that for the first time in Gaelic football the team manager must assume responsibility for player discipline -- his own players, that is.
If a few of his players are dispatched to the dugout during a game for a yellow card the manager's plans can be seriously disrupted. For example, had Ciaran Whelan got a yellow instead of a black in this game his loss would have been colossal at the time for Dublin because he was playing so well. By the way, he did not deserve a yellow but the black card issued was very interesting because it was given for apparent feigning being fouled and rolling on the ground.
Many people will be delighted if this type of behaviour is constantly punished -- it would remove at least one of the undesirable imports from soccer to Gaelic games.
But while I and many others were impressed with the rule changes on Saturday night, they were not by just one game alone to justify their longterm existence. There was no hard hitting in the game at all and regardless of what the purists say, and they mean well, Gaelic football without man-to-man hits and very robust tackling will not be accepted by the followers of the game.
Certainly we all want to see stylish play like last Saturday and we love the frequent scoring from play but it would be too a drastic a change from the sanitised version of Saturday to the traditional fire and brimstone games we have been accustomed to. Football simply cannot change to that extent so suddenly without a public outcry, in my opinion. So, some sort of compromise will be needed.
Saturday was spectacular and exciting with two of the top five teams in Ireland putting on a show in Division 1 of the NFL. Yesterday, for me, it was back to the bread and butter of the game in Division 3 and a local derby of longstanding between Longford and Cavan in dry but Arctic-like cold in Pearse Park.
This was football in the raw in every sense of the word so, devoid of the big stars, I was interested to see how the new rules would work in a totally different environment to Saturday night.
Longford fans had been expecting the worst as they were missing at least five established players including star midfielder Liam Keenan, defender Declan Reilly and star forwards Brian Kavanagh and Paul Barden, so the home crowd was amazed more at the performance of Glenn Ryan's new team than worrying about new rules.
This was just as well because Longford players received about eight black cards and one yellow and clearly need to brush up on the rules, although the shock victory will ease the pain.
The referee was Michael Duffy, brother of Saturday night's referee, but there the connection ended. In this game numerous apparent fouls were not blown up and several players were guilty of repeated fouling and dragging-down with no card in sight. But there was still no doubting the influence of the new rules and the game flowed quite freely.
In former clashes between Longford and Cavan, skin and hair would be flying around the pitch but in their present condition neither county has the wherewithal to perform like that any more, sadly.
But looking at the two games at different ends of the spectrum in two days, the overall impression is that these proposed rule changes are possibly capable of making Gaelic football much better. Let's see.