Monday 19 February 2018

Martin Breheny: Time for operation transformation

Aussies plan to raise their game while we ignore similar problems in both codes

The need to contain a star-studded Dublin attack at Kingspan Breffni Park, where Ciarán Kilkenny was a handful for Killian Brady, left, and Fergal Reilly, quickly forced Cavan to abandon plans to ditch the blanket defence. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
The need to contain a star-studded Dublin attack at Kingspan Breffni Park, where Ciarán Kilkenny was a handful for Killian Brady, left, and Fergal Reilly, quickly forced Cavan to abandon plans to ditch the blanket defence. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

They call it 'congestion' in Australian Rules football where the AFL, the sport's governing body, is sufficiently concerned about the negative impact on the game as a spectacle to examine ways of correcting it.

We loosely term it 'blanket defence' in Gaelic football but the GAA, the sport's governing body, don't appear give a hoot about it.

Nor does it seem to have noticed that 'congestion' is beginning to blight hurling too. There were times in Nowlan Park last Sunday when most of the Waterford and Kilkenny players were in the middle third of the pitch, with large groups frequently locked in 'rucks' in an attempt to win possession.


Entertainment value? Zero. And if the sight of footballers hand-passing incessantly, either laterally or backwards, in front of massed defences is deemed to be interesting, the word needs a new definition. Our games are clearly in need of some 'Operation Transformation' treatment.

The AFL is reacting to public opinion and the view that their game is losing appeal as a spectacle due to the increasing tendency for a posse of players to be locked into unseemly tangles in a small area. It's boring and the AFL has listened to an extent where they are trialling measures, aimed at opening up the play.

Among the experiments worked on by St Kilda, Sydney and Geelong in pre-season warm-up games were a reduction in the number of players on the pitch at any time from 18 to 16 and zone controls for re-starts, thus limiting the numbers in a particular sectors.

Read more: Ignore noise - match officials get it right

The latter wouldn't work in Gaelic football but reducing the number of players from 15 to 13, which applied in college games in the early 1970s, is an option, although by no means a priority since there are other remedies.

Of course, the big issue here is the absence of anything remotely radical even being considered. Instead, the mark was introduced this year, allowing a player who makes a clean catch outside the '45 from a kick-out to opt for a quick free kick if it suits him.

It has merits but applying it as the only rule change is ridiculous. It's like painting windows and doors while the roof is riven with leaks - decoratively nice but useless in the long run.

New Cavan manager Mattie McGleenan announced before the start of the season that he intended to have his new charges 'playing football'. "I'm a great believer that forwards are forwards. I want players to push high up the field. I certainly don't want 14 men in their own half. Cavan won't be playing that way. I want people to look after their own areas. Players have to be good enough to win their own ball," he said in an interview with this newspaper in early January.

Read more: Defections, doubters and droughts

Yet, when Dublin came to Kingspan Breffni Park for the opening league game, Cavan had 13 players inside their own '45 after 90 seconds. In fairness, they tried to break out in numbers too, which obviously wasn't easy against the All-Ireland champions. Last Sunday, Cavan drew with Monaghan (0-7 each) in a dour encounter, where most of the action was conducted between the two 45-metre lines.

This is no criticism of Cavan or McGleenan but rather an example of what has happened to football. His instincts may be heavily weighted towards creativity but the reality of the modern game, especially when playing against top-level opposition, dictates otherwise.


The unchecked handpass has become the curse that's destroying Gaelic football's soul. It enables teams to hold possession for extended periods, prompting the opposition to drift back into channel-clogging mode.

If handpassing were restricted to three, after which the ball had to be kicked, it may well open the play considerably. We can't be sure, of course, until it's properly trialled. But, unlike the Australians, who are prepared to experiment in the interests of raising entertainment levels, the GAA continues to take its cue from managers and various other vested interests who usually oppose proposals for even the smallest rule change. Imagine their reaction to experimenting with a restriction on handpassing!

It's not that change is easy in Australia either. "We're constantly up against the theory, 'leave the game alone'. But from time to time, the league has to make bold decisions as to how the game is going to look in the future," Michael Poulton, who liaises between the AFL and the clubs, told the Australian media last week.

Anyone in power prepared to take 'bold decisions' here?

Irish Independent

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