Colm Keys: 'Experimental football rules will help improve the game, but more change is needed'
A very frustrating weekend for both sets of players' groups operating in the orbit of the GAA.
On one hand, the Club Players Association (CPA), while not in a position to directly forward a recommendation to the Central Council meeting, were nonetheless strong advocates of the 'blank canvass' review of fixtures proposed by the Roscommon county board. It has been their pitch since their inception almost two years ago.
Rejection at this level is something the 30,000-strong association has become accustomed to. The Croke Park doors are always open to them, but shut firmly in their face once these set-piece gatherings, Congress or Central Council, take place. Quiet diplomacy clearly isn't advancing their cause.
The Gaelic Players Association (GPA) - led by chief executive Paul Flynn - will also feel somewhat boxed in after the approval of four of the five experimental rule changes proposed by the Standing Committee on Playing Rules. While in favour of an advance mark and the sin bin introduction to replace the current black card sanction, they were opposed - based on soundings from their inter-county playing group - to the kick-out having to pass the 45-metre line, handpasses being restricted to just three in succession and a sideline kick being required to go forward.
The kick-out proposal fell by the wayside but the rest remained, prompting a written GPA request for an "urgent" meeting with the GAA, which, they say, will take place later this week. Ironically, one of the committee members who signed off on the proposals is their 2018 president David Collins, the former Galway hurler.
It comes after a similar meeting was sought with the Leinster Council to discuss the fixing of pre-season games over two weekends in December. These are strong tests of the GPA's status as a lobby group for players' interests on the field of play.
It's hard to see any decision being reversed at this stage but, as Saturday's meeting underlined, modifications are possible and, in some cases, will be necessary.
There are potential kinks in each of the five rules introduced for the pre-season competitions and league. Even the implementation of a 10-minute sin bin for a 'black card' offence will not account for any delays during that period. So if there is an injury, an altercation that takes some time to sort out by the officials or a raft of substitutions, the clock will keep ticking, lightening the punishment for the player 'in the bin.'
Presumably, the new 20-metre kick-out will have to go forward, now that such a principle has been established with the change requiring a 13-metre kick-out to cross the 20-metre line.
As a snapshot the mark applied just four times in a challenge between Meath and Louth on Sunday in Drogheda. Two were taken and scored, in the other two cases, players elected to play on.
But determining whether a kick has gone 20 metres will be a subjective exercise for a referee and open to much scrutiny when matters get much more serious. Requiring a sideline kick to go forward may trigger hesitation and consequently delay which would be counter-productive.
The biggest issues will focus on the restriction on the number of consecutive handpasses to three, which was what the players were most opposed to. Already, there's anecdotal evidence that players will simply kick the ball backwards or chip it a short distance to a colleague to run out the handpass sequence and start again rather than risk a kick forward.
In broad terms, the pedestrian handpassing chains in the middle third of the field are the biggest blight on the game but quick handpassing moves in the final third of the field is, arguably, the most effective way to circumvent massed defence.
If referees are comfortable with it (and they may well not be), the option remains to restrict handpasses to three in every other part of the field, except beyond the 45-metre line the team in possession are attacking, complemented by prohibiting the ball going back over the defensive '45' once it has been crossed. But again, this is just second-guessing without actually seeing it in action.
The reaction to change has been mostly - and typically - negative, mirroring those in full voice at the introduction of the mark which was subsequently painless. But the option to do nothing and suggest that the game is fine as it is would be wrong. Gaelic football needs more contests - these proposals may not be the way to go about achieving that, but it's a start.