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Rule change debate vital to kick-start better future

STATISTICS from this year's All-Ireland football final revealed that Kerry were more dependent than Dublin on the handpass, possibly the feature of the game most frowned upon by the purists. Kerry made 233 passes, 182 from the hand. Dublin hit 166 passes, 103 hand-delivered. Kerry are usually skilled at keeping possession, at winding down the clock and protecting a lead. But they're fallible and they over-elaborated for a second and got penalised for a lifetime.

The handpassing contagion won't lead to a tribunal in Kerry or see people taking to the streets to demonstrate. Just as Barcelona refused to alter their style when intricate passing saw them concede possession and an early goal to Real Madrid recently, Kerry, let us not worry ourselves, are unlikely to make major alterations. They may pay more heed to the respective tackle stats (Dublin made 63 to Kerry's 50 and, notably, won the turnover count 29-17).

Kerry's handpassing is partly explained by their dominance of overall possession, having the majority share of 55 per cent. In spite of this reliance they could never be described as a dull team to watch. If you were to show playing rule reformers what is wrong with Gaelic football right now, you would not find much in Kerry's file.

It would be inappropriate to lay most of the blame for football's ills on the handpass, too. Quick handpassing movements are a pleasing spectacle in their own right. The handpassed score, an abomination in both codes, is long gone and over the years since there has been some further experimentation with the handpass in Gaelic football in terms of how it should be executed. They haven't always made a good fist of it, it's fair to say.

The rules standing committee currently examining ways of making both hurling and football more fluent and rooting out operational flaws have discussed the handpass and the possibility of limiting the number of consecutive offloads from the hand before the ball is kicked. It won't be happening in the short term as there are concerns about the difficulties it would pose for referees in trying to keep track.

The committee, which includes some GAA administrators, refereeing chairman Mick Curley, Dónal óg Cusack, Kieran McGeeney and Brian Cody, was dubious in any event about whether controlling handpassing would speed up the game.

It isn't an immediate priority but in the international rules series players and referees were able to adapt to similar restrictions. To be given any chance of working a change to the playing rules of that magnitude would require extensive experimentation involving all levels of the game at club and county.

The committee has discussed the possibility of choosing a grade, such as minor, and adopting the rule change there for an entire season countrywide. In that way all units will be able to see it in action first-hand and be properly informed were the proposal to go forward to a future Congress for consideration.

The Tipperary manager John Evans believes the handpass should be curtailed. "Football is a kicking game, a catching game, and we are seeing nothing remotely like what the spectator is looking for. Defensive games can be very intriguing but they are not Gaelic football. It is not a game of football.

"I would have to put my hand up and say maybe I have been naïve but I would be encouraging my team to kick the ball because it is faster. Having said that now, I have been in a lot of finals and had a lot of success. So what I have been advocating has not been bad either. It (kicking) has to be accurate, but it's faster. More devastating to the opposition. However, if too many are behind the ball that game cannot be played. I'd allow three handpasses up to the 50-yard line and three more inside the half, with no curtailment between the two 50s. It would make backs get rid of the ball quicker and force forwards to kick more on the other side."

He is less enamoured by the proposed tap-and-go experiment, which is still being teased out, with a demonstration game likely in the next few weeks to observe it in action. Were this to be introduced to Gaelic football, the player fouled could tap the ball and resume play, with opponents having to be at least five metres away from where the foul is committed. Whatever the practical difficulties may prove to be, the intentions behind this proposed feature -- lifted straight from field hockey -- are noble and well placed. That is, to reduce cynical play and reward attacking teams.

Mickey Harte has already given an unequivocal no to the proposal which is unfortunate. The 1990 reform which allowed frees to be taken from the hand was radical and not unrelated to this one, in content and aspiration, and it has shown itself to be a great success. It is now hard to imagine it ever not being there. In soccer, the back pass that was abolished looks absurd if you look at old matches but for generations it was the norm. The tap and go, though very much in its infancy, is worthy of further open discussion and wider consideration.

Evans is in the Harte camp. "I think they will realise the folly of this when they put it in a game situation. The game is fast enough as it is. Simplifying the game for referees, that is what administrators should be focusing on. I can't see it working."

But the debate is healthy and necessary. The decision to ditch the five-year restriction on playing rule reform was long overdue and the rules standing committee has emerged out of that. It is currently finalising motions on playing rules ahead of next year's Congress, with formal ratification expected at a Central Council meeting in February. One relates to closing a loophole in the rulebook to remove an existing distinction between hand, foot and leg tripping. Another will seek to allow substitutions to be made where the departing player doesn't have to be off the field when the replacement enters, but in the substitution zone, thereby speeding up the process and reducing delays and dissuading deliberate time-wasting. There is also a much needed motion on the square ball which has been a serious bone of contention for the past two seasons.

There were discussions about introducing to Gaelic football a one-handed scoop off the ground rather than the pick-up used in ladies football, but this was deemed to carry an injury risk when two players would be converging.

Hurling has escaped reform but there are prevailing concerns about how some games are refereed,

specifically where referees don't apply the rules and instead allow a certain amount of fouling or cynical play in order to create greater fluency and spectator appeal. Some of this had been raised at the rules committee meeting but most of the focus has been on Gaelic football.

For those worried about Gaelic football's increasing preoccupation with defensive strategies, the year started ominously in Ballybofey with an Ulster preliminary match between Donegal and Antrim, the championship's opening match televised to the nation. After a dour affair Liam Bradley, the Antrim manager, admitted he'd find himself hard-pressed to pay to see a game like it.

It was hard not to agree. Donegal became one of the season's enigmas where it was possible to have two completely diverse opinions on them. Ultimately, though, it sounded like Jim McGuinness seemed resigned to the fact that the ultra-defensive system employed, while effective and hugely rewarding, would be unsustainable in the long run.

Donegal were largely responsible for the lowest aggregate score of the championship and that was an All-Ireland semi-final where eight points was enough to see Dublin reach the third Sunday in September. But at least the final helped restore morale and faith in Gaelic football, that it can still be a game capable of seducing the masses.

Sunday Indo Sport