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Ruling class need to play ball

There's a time-honoured ritual which normally takes place at this time of the year.

A gang of reporters who are wondering what offence against karma has left them covering GAA matches in January proffer their dictaphones to a manager and ask him how he thinks the rule change being tried out in this meaningless competition affected the game.

The manager 'blasts' the rule change. He 'slams' the GAA for constantly tampering with the rules. He suggests such reckless experimentation is 'ruining the game'. There have been 16 scores in the match. Nobody has heard of half the players. So our friend's 'blast', his 'slam', makes the first paragraph and the headline. Administrators are emboldened in the direction of timidity and another rule change remains stillborn.

That ritual won't be taking place this year because the GAA have become so timid not a single rule change is being trialled. Presumably they thought this would save them from the wrath of inter-county bosses. Not a bit of it. Because the very suggestion that there might perhaps, somewhere along the line, if nobody minds, be some kind of trial game in which a rule allowing players to tap a free to themselves would be tried out has roused Tyrone manager Mickey Harte to new heights of rhetorical fury.

Here's his reaction to this dangerously radical proposal. "That is absolutely no advantage to our game. It should not be allowed in. I see no value in it whatsoever. Is speeding up the play the be all and end all anyway? I think the game is fast enough. I think the referee has difficulty enough in keeping up with the speed that it is already. And how would they differentiate or decide if the players are back far enough? What is the end of all this? I think it has no part to play in our games. It's detrimental. It's absolutely off the wall, that's what it is."

I'm a Mickey Harte fan. His steering of Tyrone to three All-Ireland titles is one of the great feats of management in GAA history. I think he bears himself with remarkable dignity off the field and is an inspirational figure to many. But mention rule change and the man tends to react in a fashion which makes Chicken Licken look rational.

He's not alone in this. In fact, Harte's tap-and-go meltdown serves as a classic example of the knee-jerk way in which too many GAA people greet the prospect of the change. There's over-reaction: "It's detrimental. It's absolutely off the wall." No, it's not Mickey, it's a minor rule change. There's complacency: "I think the game is fast enough." There are illogical claims about the ability of refs to enforce the rule: "How would they differentiate or decide if the players are back far enough." I don't know, perhaps in the same way that they decide if players are back far enough from a free at the moment. And, above all, there's the fear, "what is the end of all this," that any minuscule tampering with the rules will lead to revolutionary change which will destroy the game as we know it.

That's the kind of mentality which prompted Congress to pass a motion a few years back banning any changes to the rules of football or hurling for the foreseeable future. The GAA has moved past that piece of lunacy but meaningful rule change continues to be stymied by unthinking conservatism.

Take, for example, the question of the rule forbidding the pick off the ground in football. Pretty much everyone knows that this serves little purpose except to slow the game down and provide players with the chance of creeling an opponent as he bends ponderously grasswards. Oh, and it also gives refs a chance to make mistakes. As anyone who's played the game is aware, waving your foot in the general direction of the ball as you stoop towards it generally suffices to appease the man in black. Omit this gesture and go with hands only and, even if the ball is several inches off the ground, you'll incur a free. It's a useless rule, one which caused All-Ireland final referee Joe McQuillan problems which might have affected the final result.

So I was pleased to hear that the committee which the GAA have set up to examine possible rule changes proposed to get rid of this rule as currently constituted. But then I read that they were thinking of replacing the current pick-up with a "one-handed scoop off the ground." Ah lads. A one-handed scoop off the ground? What's wrong with just picking the ball up?

But there was more. It then emerged that the Super Scoop "was deemed to carry an injury risk when two players were converging." I can't tell you the joy that little sentence has given me over the holiday period. You can just see the dangers facing those converging players, can't you, as they bear down on each other like the Titanic and the iceberg? Obviously there would be utter carnage on the football fields of the country. So apparently we won't be experiencing the joys of the one-handed scoop any time soon.

This same willingness to complicate matters also rears its head when the question of limiting the handpass comes up. This is a change

which would unquestionably make the game more attractive. Who hasn't groaned when witnessing one of those passages of play which sees a player pick up a short pass from the 'keeper and transfer it sideways to a team-mate who'll turn back towards goal and pass it backwards to another defender who'll then pass it to player number one and loop around him in order to take a return pass. The ability of some county teams to complete large numbers of passes while travelling very small distances sometimes suggests that they're participating in a ground-breaking scientific experiment on the relationship between effort and motion. But most of the time it simply drives spectators nuts.

Yet when the idea of limiting the number of successive handpasses is mooted, what are we told? That such a new rule would be difficult for referees to keep track of. I kid you not. Now, I accept that referees are sometimes fallible but not even the crossest Corofin man would suggest that as a breed they are unable to count to three, or even four. If the GAA are in possession of knowledge to the contrary, perhaps they could counter the problem by putting officials through a series of intensive mathematics workshops or, if that involves too much expense, restricting entry into the refereeing trade to the numerate.

Meanwhile, the handpass continues to take over the game and kicking declines as a skill so that more and more inter-county players push themselves through punishing training routines in order to make lung-bursting runs which compensate for their inability to kick the ball 20 yards in the right direction.

Anyone who witnessed the horrors of Championship 2011 could tell you that the game of football is in need of change. Yet too many managers and officials remain blinkered by their own self-serving conservatism. Jim McGuinness has taken a lot of stick over the last few months but all the Donegal boss did was take the implications of the way football is played now to their logical conclusion. If a manager comes in for such vituperation for playing within the rules, it's not the manager who's wrong. It's the rules.

Last year the mark had its hour of glory in the O'Byrne Cup and the National League. It seemed to go well but was consigned to the dustbin of history all the same. The tap and go mightn't even get as far as the O'Byrne Cup.

Such is the level of unthinking backlash against rule change these days I doubt if the proposal which enabled players to take frees from their hands would get through now. Once the GAA had the boldness to make rule changes when they were necessary. These days it seems they won't even risk trying them out in meaningless minor competitions. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for this rules committee to recommend any kind of radical change. Mind you, any change they do suggest will prove to be too radical for the game's Moaning Minnies.

Now that's what I call detrimental.


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