Tuesday 17 September 2019

O'Neill on frontline of rule-change issue as camogie seeks to move with the times

Liam O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Liam O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Having spent some of his time as GAA president overseeing rule changes in Gaelic football, Liam O'Neill now finds himself exploring ways of tweaking the laws governing camogie. Frustration is growing within the game with current rule limitations which are seen as restrictive and leading to a surfeit of frees and stoppages.

O'Neill is chairing a rules revision group, at the behest of the Camogie Association, which will report to a meeting of its Central Council next month with proposals. The new rules may be trialled in next year's league with a view towards possible implementation for the championship in 2020.

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Last year's All-Ireland senior final had a troubling streak of controversy as Cork retained their title at Kilkenny's expense, winning by a point which came from a disputed free. The previous Cork score was also contentious at a time of growing concern that the game is not keeping up with advances in players' strength and fitness levels.

Deliberate shouldering is not permitted in a rule book that many have accepted is outdated and in need of revision. Instead players are meant to shadow opponents in possession and avoid deliberate physical contact.

O'Neill conducted a seminar earlier in the year where people were invited to give their views on camogie and its current pitfalls. Arising from that, it was decided to set up a rules revision committee with him as chair to look into rule changes for experimentation in 2020.

"Our brief was to look at the game, to get people's views, to see what changes were necessary," says O'Neill. "To see if the game could be more attractive. Like many sports they have a big drop off after 16 (years of age).

"There seems to have been a bit of negativity around some of the frees that were being awarded. You hear the generic terms 'let the game flow' and 'use common sense'. At the same time the same people would say, 'cut out foul play'. Generally speaking, it often favours those who push it to the limit and maybe over the limit."

But there is a growing desire for change. A recent survey by the group showed almost unanimous support for the removal of the hand-passed score. It also showed a strong desire to remove the rule allowing players to drop their hurls and pass the ball. These reforms would bring the game more in line with hurling. In camogie minimal tapping of the opponent's hurley is also permitted and for penalties three players are allowed in goal while there is no rule prohibiting the ball from being struck inside the 20-metre line.

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"There is a need to make allowances for more physicality and that needed to be looked at but there is a counter-balance to that, in that the female body is not built to sustain frontal charges," says O'Neill. "Or over-physicality; their bodies are different. So safety needs to be taken into account."

The group also includes Paul O'Donovan, a player welfare officer with the Camogie Association, Kevin McGeeney, a referees' assessor, Anne Marie Hayes, a former Galway player, the former Wexford player Mary Leacy, the current Down player Fionnuala Carr and Siobhan O'Connor, a lecturer in DCU.

While the survey is complete, O'Neill says that the group is still open to fresh suggestions. Proposals can be emailed to the group at feedback@camogie.ie.

"I suppose a bit like any previous changes, we are mindful that we want to protect the skilful player and showcase the skills in camogie," O'Neill remarks. "We will see what we can do to make the game more attractive for players. And a game I suppose that is fit for the modern player.

"The Committee won't be afraid to suggest radical change, if that's what we feel is necessary. I think we might have to push the boundaries a bit, it is then up to the Camogie Association so see how much of those they accept, but there is an opportunity here to speed up the game, to make it more attractive and to make the rules suit the modern player and the modern spectator."

Eighteen of the 27 scores in last year's All-Ireland senior final came from dead balls and there hasn't been a goal in the last two deciders.

A separate Women's Gaelic Players Association survey in April found that 70 per cent of the 243 inter-county respondents agreed that rules on physical contact 'very much' needed to change.

"They're going to have to change [the rules]," Cork captain Aoife Murray commented after her side's victory in last year's final. "It's not going to be an easy job but it has gotten more physical and faster and maybe the rules need to be tweaked and amended to reflect the standard."

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