Wednesday 28 September 2016

Rules experiment could herald introduction of mark

Summer of discontent forces GAA to look at solutions to cynical tactics and poor games

Damian Lawlor

Published 11/10/2015 | 13:00

Monaghan's Paul Finlay is crowded out of it by four Cavan players during this year's Ulster Championship clash in Breffni Park Photo: Oliver McVeigh
Monaghan's Paul Finlay is crowded out of it by four Cavan players during this year's Ulster Championship clash in Breffni Park Photo: Oliver McVeigh

Moves are already afoot to introduce changes to Gaelic football after a year in which the game's image suffered badly through a combination of an apparent increase in on-field cynicism and bad matches.

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The changes being proposed include introducing the mark and measures to tackle persistent time-wasting which many feel has become a blight on the game.

These are among a series of proposals which will be considered by the GAA's Management Committee and, if passed, the Sunday Independent understands they could be trialled as early as next year's pre-season competitions. Depending on their success, they could well be permanently adopted.

Restoring the game's reputation, which took a severe hit this year with so many below-average clashes, is a priority but the GAA feels that wholesale changes will not pave a stable path forward either. Teams are looking increasingly restricted by systems with an ultra-defensive feel gripping the game. The usual suspects survived to fight in the latter stages of the championship and a desperately poor All-Ireland final was a wash-out. The game has become stagnant and lateral. There are estimates that teams are holding on to possession for around 23 seconds at a time - double what it was 30 years ago - and greater use of the handpass is an obvious target for change. There has also been a drop of over 43 per cent in foot passes over 30 metres in the past ten years.

The public perception is that football has fallen further backwards this season in terms of entertainment and attractiveness, a view that can be supported going right back to the Allianz League.

On March 28, Jarlath Burns tweeted that the much-maligned and truly dismal Dublin-Derry affair sounded the death knell for the game. Few argued with him.

Now Burns, also the chairman of the GAA's standing rules committee, is leading a group looking to improve the game. The issues of blanket defences, time-wasting and playing down the clock, cynical play, an over-reliance on handpassing are top of the agenda.

With Gaelic football teams moving back in lines like a snow plough, coaching systems are suffering too with a fear of losing the ball lying deep within players and coaches. Creativity has largely gone out the window.

Now, though, the standing rules committee are set to act by implementing new rules for trial. It's understood that three proposals are likely to be taken on board and put forward for further analysis.

The first will be to trial the 'mark' in Gaelic football with the aim to quicken up the game. Players who make a catch in a certain area of the pitch will be allowed to play the ball away unimpeded, rather than being hounded by a swarm of opponents. A second proposal targets setting a 30-second limit for every substitution which will help alleviate claims of time-wasting, especially near the end of games.

A suggestion has also been put forward for the regulation of time limits on free-taking. Whether this gets any traction remains to be seen but there is angst at the top level that an outfield player can be penalised for taking over 30 seconds to compose himself for a free-kick whereas a goalkeeper can take up to two minutes and not be punished. There have been calls, too, for a ceiling to be placed on the number of consecutive handpasses a team can make, and there is also a train of thought seeking an extra advantage to be awarded for a long-range score.

However, it's believed that the GAA wants to slowly address the travails affecting the game rather than implementing a blaze of rule changes that might only survive in the short term. And they argue that while the quality of football has taken a hit this year the figures still stack up. Over 120,000 turned up for this year's two All-Ireland quarter-final double-headers, leaving the GAA well ahead of where they were not long over a decade ago.

And there is no denying either that the preparation of inter-county teams is of a higher standard than ever before. Modern-day players also play a faster and more physical game than even 10 years ago. In an interview a few months back, Mick O'Dwyer said that, no matter what, people would always find fault with the game.

"It's the way of the world," he said. "I wish people would stop moaning about football and enjoy it for what it is. Of course, I'd like to see the ball being kicked more often, but that's the way the game has gone, for now anyway. Things change. It might not always be like that. But, for now, there's a lot of handpassing - so what? I think the game as it stands is great to watch. Can anyone say that the Donegal-Tyrone game (in this year's Ulster SFC) wasn't a marvellous spectacle?"

People like to romanticise about colourful eras of the past but many would insist that the game was more cumbersome in the 1970s, '80s and '90s than now. There may have been more kick-passing and more open play but the modern game has evolved to a huge extent and tactics and analysis have improved massively.

In considering the new proposals the GAA want to acknowledge that too. They realise there is still a need to reduce cynical fouling but they have no intention of rewriting the rule book.

And while there is a pre-occupation with negative tactics and mass defence, this is largely down to the various team mangers who argue that they either have to adapt or fall behind the others.

Blanket defences have made the game sterile in many cases but there are ways to counteract it too. Creative coaching should encourage teams to beat the blanket by going down the flanks, over the top or, as Mayo showed late in their drawn game against Dublin, going through the middle.

The thinking of some GAA officials is that no amount of rule changing would persuade an under-pressure manager to veer from packing his defence while every other team is doing so. They would like coaches to become smarter and more proactive to find a way through.

There is an underlying realisation in Croke Park, though, that the impressive attendances cannot be taken for granted. Introducing the proposed new rules next season could help enhance the entertainment factor for spectators and increase the pace of the game which would, at least, be a small step in the right direction.

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