Australian rout underlines decay in Gaelic football's core skill levels
In the week before the All-Ireland football final, we ran a debate in this newspaper on the standard of the championship, broadening into the wider issue of whether there had been an overall decline in recent years.
I argued that there had been and that this year's championship was the equivalent of a race where the pace wasn't really all that quick -- it made for interesting viewing, but then so would a blanket finish in a four-minute mile race, even if the world record is more than 15 seconds quicker.
My colleague Colm Keys launched a staunch defence of this year's standards and, naturally, both parties claimed to be correct. We returned to the debate -- somewhat animatedly -- by phone last Sunday as he awaited the start of the Moorefield versus Portlaoise game in Portlaoise while I was similarly positioned at Nowlan Park for the Kilkenny hurling final.
Admittedly, I did open proceedings with a rather provocative invitation for him to recant his views on the basis that the previous night's International Rules game had presented stark new evidence to support my case. He wasn't well disposed to the idea, contending that it was illogical to link Ireland's poor performance with this year's championship, or indeed Gaelic football standards in general.
However, I don't see it that way. When a group of Australian Rules players, who never use a round ball, are so much more at ease with their kicking than Gaelic footballers, it suggests there's something seriously wrong with our game. And there is.
Kicking skills have been sacrificed in a game dominated by handpassing. A player can go through an entire game without once kicking the ball in what is the ultimate corruption of the sport. It was embarrassing last Saturday to watch top players being well beaten in the art of kicking by opponents who use an oval ball back home.
But then the Irish players aren't used to footpassing in their own game, so it was hardly surprising that they couldn't switch on to it in the mixed code.
Ireland scored 1-8 (GAA-style scoring) in 72 minutes, a dismal total in what was their second-lowest return in the 33-game history of the International Rules, while the Australians kicked 0-14.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of the mixed game, it will fulfil an important role if the kicking issue encourages the GAA to analyse exactly where Gaelic football is headed. We're repeatedly told that team preparation has never been more advanced, yet our top players can't come anywhere close to matching their Aussie opponents in the basic art of kicking.
The problem stems from the manner in which the handpass has been allowed to become the primary ingredient in the Gaelic football mix. Why work on kicking skills when possession can be retained endlessly by handpassing which, as a spectacle, seriously detracts from the game?
Handpassing should be restricted so that when a player receives the ball from a handpass, it must be kicked. The usual counter to any call for restrictions is a dismissive 'so you want to return to catch-and-kick'. Yes, actually, not aimless kicking but rather smart, accurate deliveries, as displayed by the Australians.
Gaelic football has become a handpass-crazed game, with the emphasis on defensive strategies rather than attacking creativity. The mousetrap rules, leaving the poor mouse a beaten docket. And if you doubt that, look at the scorelines from recent county finals.
A total of 10 or less scores was enough to win senior finals in Tyrone, Mayo, Leitrim, Fermanagh, Louth, Laois, Wicklow, Limerick and Waterford, while 11 and 12 scores won finals in Armagh, Monaghan, Longford, Galway, Wexford, Westmeath, Carlow, Offaly, Cork and Clare. As for goals, they're an endangered species -- the Galway final was the only decider in Connacht which featured a goal, leaving Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon as point-only zones, where the average total per game was under 18 points. It's scarcely a monument to inventiveness.
Rugby and soccer are continually looking for ways to make their sports more entertaining, but that's not the case in the GAA, which has allowed Gaelic football to lose a core skill (kicking) and replace it with dreary handpassing. The damage inflicted on the game has been obvious for quite some time and was reinforced to a worrying degree in Limerick last Saturday night.