Saturday 19 January 2019

Colm Keys: 'Experimental rules deserve longer trial - despite bosses' doubts'

 

Sin-binned: Westmeath’s Sean Petit watches on from the ‘sin bin’ during the O’Byrne Cup match between Carlow and Westmeath at Netwatch Cullen Park. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Sin-binned: Westmeath’s Sean Petit watches on from the ‘sin bin’ during the O’Byrne Cup match between Carlow and Westmeath at Netwatch Cullen Park. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder. Your impression from a first glance of the experimental rules in a competitive context depends very much on what type of game you envisage being played.

Turlough O'Brien saw the action in Netwatch Cullen Park yesterday through the lens of a statistic presented to him. Westmeath had the ball turned over 25 times, his own Carlow 29.

In the language of modern football, that's tantamount to blasphemy.

"A lot of ball being turned over, that's the big thing, players are indecisive, they're getting caught because they can't use the handpass," he said.

"I saw in Portlaoise last night (Laois v Meath), reading the papers this morning I couldn't believe what I was reading - I know there were bad conditions , but a dreadful amount of turnovers, same here today.

"Both sides were experimental too, we have to remember that. I just don't... we'll wait and pass judgment after the three games."

But privately, O'Brien's mind is probably made up. For him, what he has seen can't improve the game.

"I wouldn't be hopeful. I don't think it's a better spectacle when the ball is being kicked away like that. No-one wants to see that."

Carlow seemed less adaptable to what the new rules asked of them, less willing to break from a style that has served them so well in recent seasons. They may already be hedging their bets that these rules won't be exposed to the league.

So five times referee Anthony Nolan blew them up for a fourth handpass, compared to Westmeath's two.

O'Brien doesn't see it as a familiarity issue, however.

"It's just your options are so limited. This game is played at a very fast pace and you only have a split second to make your mind up, and if the handpass is not on you are going to be closed down very quickly," he said.

"Lads are kicking the ball because they have to and are getting turned over. Everyone gets frustrated and the standard goes down.

"I don't think today added anything to it. If you are looking at it today you wouldn't say these rules are making a fantastic change for the positive."

And yet for those who appreciate a slightly less structured, more random game, there was something in it, especially the rise in contested balls.

The option of an advanced mark seemed to force more one-to-one defending, with defenders knowing they had to be hard on the shoulder on their opponents to cut it out.

For Carlow's last point of the first half Dan St Ledger delivered a speculative ball into a crowded goalmouth looking for an advanced mark and from the broken play that followed Darren Lunney was able to slip in for a second point. Would Carlow have tried that in recent years?

But marks, or even attempted marks, were few and far between. Players have much to adjust to with the handpass so this is down the list of priorities.

Westmeath's Sean Petit took one from Callum McCormack's kick but his subsequent 'free' was wide; Carlow's Conor Crowley signalled for one after gathering from Simon Doyle but instantly played on as a goal chance opened but wasn't taken.

Petit was later sin-binned for 10 minutes (it lasted over 11) but in that time Westmeath had a man down for more than a minute and there were two substitutes used.

Overall, there was a clear spike in kicking but most were short, prodded, lateral attempts to subvert the handpass restriction. No harm in that, though, as even those kicks are more difficult to execute than a handpass - it was sufficient to invite more pressure, certainly in Westmeath's case, and it paid dividends.

There is a fear that the restricted number of handpasses will curtail goal chances, and there was one clear example in the first half when wires got crossed between Westmeath's Killian Daly and Boidu Sayeh from a position that could easily have opened up with a handpass. The solution may well be to extend the restriction from three to four to allow more flexibility in these situations.

New Westmeath manager Jack Cooney delivered a largely neutral verdict.

"Certainly a lot of lateral kick-passing and kick-passing backwards to try and maintain possession," he said. "A lot of short kick-passes, five, six metres. It's just a matter of trying to think your way through the game, knowing when you are on your limit of handpasses and then just trying to maintain possession and not forcing it.

"There wasn't an awful lot of long kick-passes into the forward line. It didn't really change the delivery of the ball into our forward line, or Carlow's forward line a whole lot.

"I don't think there's an awful lot wrong with the game as it is. It's played at a good intensity, we should just sit back and review it again after today and see what it's like.

"The mark is something that could be worked on. Inside the 45? I don't know. Inside the 21 might offer a bit more reward for the longer kick, you might see that one v one tussle inside then, more high fielding."

Finally a word of credit to referee Anthony Nolan. He had a lot to handle and did it well.

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