Tuesday 23 January 2018

No great change on agenda for cautious Congress

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

They haven't been received too warmly and the absence of wider consultation irked many, but this weekend the GAA has an opportunity -- for better or worse -- to make changes to the way the games are played that will stay in place for the next five years.

Under rule, the Association can only legislate on playing rule changes every five years in years that are multiples of five, so the importance of this weekend's work cannot be overstated.

Some of the experiments have been controversial, some have gone largely unnoticed and some will impose much greater change than others.

But the innate conservatism of Congress suggests that change will be at a premium. We look at what is at stake and what might transpire.

Ending a half only when the ball has gone out of play over a boundary line sounded, in theory, like a great idea. And in its initial stages it was. When Dublin travelled to a packed Pairc Tailteann in Navan for their O'Byrne Cup quarter-final replay at the end of January, the provision of this experiment ensured a thrilling finish as both sides were level and pressing for a winner. Eventually, Meath got forward after an end-to-end passage of play and edged ahead. But those thrilling conclusions have been few and far between since then.

The experiment has led to confusion, first among a few officials who fluffed their lines and called time themselves when the ball was still in play, with the Longford/Limerick match being the prime example. It was human error by an official asked to operate a different set of rules week in, week out.

But for the most part the time issue has not worked quite as well as it does in rugby. For a start most grounds do not have clocks, countdown or otherwise, so it's impossible for players to determine when time has elapsed so that they are free to bring a game to a conclusion.

Mickey Harte protested about play being brought to a conclusion at the end of the first half of their All-Ireland semi-final last August as his side were attacking and in a rare cameo was seen to challenge the referee, John Bannon, as he made his way off the field.

But Harte now believes that the sight of players booting a ball over a line is an unseemly way to end of a half or a game of football and has suggested putting the ball out over an end line as a better conclusion.

Verdict: After the hand pass, the least likely of the playing rule experiments to attract support. If clocks were in all grounds it would be more workable.

A strange thing happened on Sunday last. Two players at opposite ends of the country had penalty kicks saved, Conor McManus for Monaghan in Killarney against Kerry, Martin Clarke for Down in Newry against Laois. Significantly both scored goals from the rebound where obviously their great proximity to the goals, courtesy of the experimental rules, gave them a head start on everyone else. Moving the penalty spot from 13 metres out to 11 metres out has really placed the advantage to the kicker where previously it heavily weighted with the defender and goalkeeper.

But is the advantage too great? Is it almost impossible to have a shot off target from that distance? And is the rebound tailormade for the penalty taker? A distance of 12 metres with no rebound permitted might provide a more balanced ration between punishment and crime. Not all fouls that draw penalties necessarily prevent goals.

Verdict: One of the few playing rule changes that will make it.

Technically it's not called the mark, but a free-kick for the clean catcher of a kick-out between the two 45s. The question is: how brave are the delegates going to Congress? In the knowledge that conservatism couches every move they make, the mark, for all its good, will be rejected. Kieran McGeeney asked earlier in the year why one skill was being rewarded above the other and he made a valid point. And some of the marks taken have been unchallenged and at the receiver's feet almost, hardly a 'skill' that deserves special concession. But a clean catch from a kick-out remains one of the most edifying spectacles in Gaelic football. Yes, we acknowledge McGeeney's point but it has at least gone some way to cleaning up the mess of the jungle that is so often the middle third on a kick-out. It hasn't made a hugely discernable difference, which ironically is perhaps in its favour on Saturday. Ideally allowing the player the facility to run with the ball after making the mark would have made it a better package overall, but for now it should be kept alive.

Verdict: Given the conservatism of Congress the mark looks set to be narrowly rejected.

From the word go, the fist pass has perplexed managers and players alike. Players have become too accustomed to the more flexible open hand pass that allows a swifter transfer and consequently a faster game. What the task force trialled for the last two months has no chance. A different motion from the Connacht Council allowing an open hand pass provided there is a 'definite underhand striking action' has only slightly better prospects. The hand pass in Gaelic football has evolved with the game. Restoring it to a fist pass only is too much of a change.

Interestingly, St Joseph's of Clare are proposing that two consecutive hand passes cannot be executed in the one move but that would have needed a period of experiment.

Verdict: No chance of being retained.

The number of goals in the league is marginally up on last year thanks to a greater penalty conversion rate and the level of uncertainty brought by new legislation adopted for the league that allowed players to get into a square before the ball had arrived. Referees are uncertain about this and goalkeepers rue the dearth of protection once afforded to them, but it has provided a spark and Tyrone's late goal against Kerry by Colm Cavanagh in the second round of the league would not have stood previously.

Verdict: Should be kept but more likely to lose out narrowly on a two-thirds majority.

The uniform kick-out from the 13-metre line hasn't provoked much reaction and should be accepted without much fuss as it brings greater consistency to where the ball is going to land.

Verdict: Will be carried easily.

Irish Independent

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