Friday 9 December 2016

Jim Glennon: Law-makers must intervene to foster creativity

Boring defensive tactics will hold sway until rule changes force coaches' hands

Jim Glennon

Published 05/04/2015 | 02:30

Derry manager Brian McIver said the 'blanket defence' was not a style he would like to implement
Derry manager Brian McIver said the 'blanket defence' was not a style he would like to implement

THE final day of the Six Nations Championship was, to my mind, the best afternoon of European rugby since the legendary Barbarians-New Zealand game in 1973. But we cannot escape the fact that it had been preceded by four rounds of conservative, tight and often just plain dull rugby.

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For players and coaches, success is viewed in a narrow prism. It is the outcome that matters, rather than the style employed in its achievement. A win is a win is a win. However, from the perspective of the spectator and, in the economics of modern sport and broadcasting, the consumer, the product on offer in the earlier rounds offered little to encourage repeat business.

The case has been argued, with some validity, that such trends in the game are regular and cyclical. Through the years we have seen the ebb and flow of various ideas, usually usurped by another new tactic or innovation conceived and implemented by an avant garde coach or team, forcing others to change tack or struggle in its wake.

What was thrown up by the first four rounds of the tournament could well be part of just such a cycle, and some are of the view that Super Saturday's offering could herald the birth of a new cycle, with a heightened level of awareness on the part of coaches everywhere of the possibilities inherent in positive and creative offensive strategies. Whether this turns out to be the case remains to be seen, but I won't hold my breath in anticipation.

Rugby isn't the only game where tactics and strategies are under the microscope. While cycles of tactical innovations and strict game-plans are the norm in modern rugby, Gaelic football has been similarly immersed for some years now, apparently with little sign of change.

Like most Irish sportsmen, I'm not without some experience of playing Gaelic football, without ever laying claim to any expertise or ability, but as an interested observer and admirer of the GAA, it's easy to observe the parallels evident between the trends in the respective games towards pragmatism, ball retention and dominance by defences and their systems.

Innovations in Gaelic football pioneered around the turn of the century by great managers such as Armagh's Joe Kernan and Tyrone's Mickey Harte have evolved to the widespread application in 2015 of the 'blanket defence'. Imitated and adapted by many, with varying degrees of success, the strategy was honed to a fine art by Jim McGuinness's Donegal team. It has reached the point where few, if any, counties are currently playing what we might think of as traditional Gaelic football.

I'm a firm believer that the tension between attack and defence is fundamental to all team sports, and management and players are entitled, even obliged, to play as they wish, within the rules or laws of the game, in order to achieve their desired outcome. Particularly so, it must be said, in amateur sport, where the interests of the playing participant must always reign supreme as against those of the spectator - better to be remembered as a winner than as a nice footballer.

The now seemingly ingrained nature of such a style of play within certain Gaelic football teams gave rise to something of an outcry following last Saturday's League game between Dublin and Derry at Croke Park. Derry manager Brian McIver admitted afterwards that the style of football was not one he'd like to be implementing as a matter of course. Jarlath Burns, the new chairman of the GAA's Standing Rules Committee, was straight in his tweet in the game's aftermath to the effect that we were witnessing 'the death of Gaelic football'. I'm not qualified to comment on his assertion but his honesty is to be welcomed - governing bodies, across all sports, have a responsibility to step in to ensure the long-term well-being of their sport.

In this vein, we've seen in recent years the GAA's introduction of the black card; World Rugby, in it's previous guise as the IRB, also have a track record of tinkering with law changes, or 'experimental law variations', as they have become known - some ELVs are successful enough to warrant subsequent permanent introduction, while others are deemed a failure and filed under 'good idea at the time, but . . .'

In the current rapidly-changing world of televised sport, the onus, more than ever, is on the authorities to ensure that they are up to speed with all the latest trends within their respective sports, and even ahead of the curve, if possible, in their reaction. Rule/law changes are of vital importance in negating undesirable developments, while creativity, particularly in the offensive aspects, must be promoted.

The trends we're currently observing in rugby are by no means fatal as, in any sporting pursuit, the cream will always display its quality in its inevitable and irresistible rise to the top; however, for the overall well-being of all top-level sports, continuous pro-active and sensible intervention on the part of the authorities is essential if pace is to be kept with the initiatives of innovative competitors.

Sunday Indo Sport

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