Fear of black card already putting brake on cynicism
So the world did not end after all on the day the black cards hit the GAA scene. Despite all the dire warnings from the prophets of doom, the sun still rose this morning and the GAA continued on its merry way as if nothing had happened.
Which is only right and proper, since very little did actually happen. About a dozen footballers were black-carded over the weekend for different offences and had to walk off the field and be replaced.
The whole purpose of the changes made by the Football Review Committee (FRC) last year was to create a deterrent, not to initiate punishment methods.
The deterrent was necessary to discourage footballers from behaving in a cynical way, so that everybody involved in the sport would find the game more attractive to watch and to play.
Based on what we saw yesterday, this deterrent is starting to work; players will have been aware aware that they will look stupid if they have to walk off the field because of any of the negative behaviour at which the black card is aimed.
Yesterday's events, of course, are not definitive. The matches were in the main low-key and most teams had a lot of newcomers on view whose main concern was to stay on the field so that their manager could have a good a look at them in a competitive game. Therefore, the exchanges were more timid than we will see in four weeks' time when the National League starts.
But that more easy-going attitude was just right for the first outing of the rule changes because it allowed everybody -- players, referees, spectators and managers -- to absorb the process without any hassle; and no doubt, a lot of people from all those sections of the sport will have learned a lot.
It will have focused the minds on the whole subject of cynical play and bring home to all how such activity will be punished. But punishment was never the real reason for the change of rule -- rather it was to deter the fouling in the first place.
The message is quite simple -- if a player does not commit a cynical foul, or does not verbally abuse a referee, official or another player, he has nothing to worry about regarding the black card. Neither will referees have to get upset, and spectators will be able to enjoy the game more.
Anyway, the rules are there now, so everyone must try to ensure the changes run smoothly; of course, patience and tolerance will be required in the coming months.
GAA people, as I have often mentioned before, rarely pay much attention to rules -- they assume that the way things are is the way things will continue to be, indefinitely.
So when rule changes are instigated by the GAA, a lot of people do not delve into the nitty-gritty about what is involved but just carry on regardless.
The arrival of the black-card rule was a bit different because it attracted an unusual level of interest. But what was not factored in by the vast majority of GAA people was that it was not just the black-card issue that was put in the rule book -- several other matters were also included that people will only now be realising.
The first match I attended this weekend was an U-21 game between Longford and Mayo. Around halfway through the second half, when Longford were staging a strong rally, we noticed their best player being dispatched to the dugout and being replaced. "What was that for, lads? I didn't see anybody being pulled down," said the man beside me.
As patiently as I could, I let him know that several other offences can earn you a black card, not just the crime of cynically pulling down a player.
In this case, the referee, Enda Ward from Westmeath, dispatched the Longford player because the player engaged in forceful verbals against the referee -- from now on, that warrants a black card.
The same applies if a player is adjudged to have behaved in that way against an opponent, which should hit the 'sledgers' in the game hard.
The purpose of this change is to instill more respect for referees and opponents, and I am sure that most GAA people would welcome that move.
Another important rule change included in the black-card package is the alteration of the advantage rule.
The referee puts his hand in the air for five seconds, which is the time a player who is being fouled will be allowed to play on to take an advantage, if he is able.
As the season goes on, this will become a quite significant change, especially for forwards, and there has been a demand for this for many years.
Also reinforced is the punishment for the modern version of the third-man tackle, when a player who has given a pass is about to run on for a possible return pass but is stopped illegally by an opponent in order to prevent that player receiving a return.
Some of these challenges can be very dangerous as they can occur when the player is not expecting to be hit.
Some 'hard men' have brought this striking to a fine art, if we can call it that!
So while the black card is in the news right now, it is likely that the other rule changes will make an even bigger contribution to Gaelic football as time goes by.