Wednesday 18 September 2019

Comment - International Rules code shows football what it's missing out on

Kildare’s Kevin Feely soars into the air to win possession ahead of Australia’s Nat Fyfe during the first Test at the Adelaide Oval on Saturday. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Kildare’s Kevin Feely soars into the air to win possession ahead of Australia’s Nat Fyfe during the first Test at the Adelaide Oval on Saturday. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Forget about whether you are for or against the International Rules series and consider this: does it teach us anything about Gaelic football that would be helpful in making the game better?

In my view, the answer is an unequivocal 'yes'. It comes under various headings, including fielding, handpassing, angles of running and refereeing. High fielding has always been a spectacular feature of Australian Rules, as indeed it used to be in Gaelic football.

It's still there in AFL but has become increasingly rare in our game where there's now more regard for a 30-metre kick-out that finds a colleague than for an inspiring catch.

A jumping contest between two or more players is a thrilling event, especially if one of them makes a catch. And if you were to get lots of them in the course of a game - as happens in AFL - it would generate far more reaction among spectators than yet another along-the-ground kick-out.

Fetched The GAA's rules review group made some progress towards rewarding high fielding by introducing the 'mark' for kick-outs fetched outside the 45-metre line.

They could have gone further by making it compulsory for all kick-outs to pass the '45' but rejected that idea on the basis that it would lead to congestion in the landing area. So what? Specialist fielders will always prosper if the rewards are there for showcasing their art.

Nat Fyfe, who scored a total of 16 points for Australia against Ireland last Sunday, reminded us of what we're missing in Gaelic football with a series of leaps where he was, literally, head and shoulders above everyone else.

He's a tall man (6' 3") but we have lot of footballers who are just as big. And they would be as good at fielding too if the rules and the culture of the game encouraged such a wonderful skill. Of course, you don't have to be tall to field well.

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Eddie Betts, all 5' 9" of him, made several excellent overhead catches close to Ireland's goal. It was down to proper placing of his feet, timing and an innate instinct to judge the flight of the ball. AFL rules encourage that - Gaelic football rules do not.

And so to handpassing. I asked Shane Walsh on Monday what impressed him most about the Australians. His answer? The speed of their handpassing.

It's quick, crisp and direct, designed to break opposition lines within seconds. The Gaelic football version is often slow and laboured.

It's more about retaining possession than an attacking weapon. Let's keep handpassing and sure a break might come in the end.

Paul Earley has been beating this drum for years, repeatedly pointing out that the handpassing technique taught to our young players - assuming of course that it's even being done - is flawed.

He's right. Watch the second Test next Saturday morning (8.45am Irish time) and compare the handpassing technique of the two teams.

In terms of efficiency, Australia will be well ahead. That's no fault of the Irish team, since they come from a culture where the main purpose of the handpass is to retain possession.

It also establishes the pattern of running angles, which will always be better when the ball is being moved at high speed. Earley, who has vast experience as a player, coach and rules reviewer, is also an advocate of the two-referee system, which applies in International Rules.

His logic is simple. He contends that referees have so much to do that it's asking far too much of one man to control a 30-man game played on a 2.5-acre pitch.

International Rules use two referees, one in either half and it works very well. Indeed, Maurice Deegan and Matt Slavic established a great rapport last Sunday and, of course, each had the advantage of being close to play, enabling them to get more calls right.

How often do we see our referees making important decisions a long way from the action, not because they lack fitness but because nobody could possibly keep up with play. Earley is very strong on the two-referees policy in GAA but, so far at least, there's no appetite at official level to even trial it. Why such reluctance to an idea that's based on clear logic?

A final point. I would love to see an AFL coach taking charge of a county team. It would be an intriguing to study what innovations he introduced and how he adapted Australian Rules for Gaelic football purposes.

Irish Independent

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