For anyone who has been invested in Gaelic Football over any significant length of time, there is something terribly tragic about the saga of the most recent incarnation of the Standing Committee on Playing Rules (SCPR). The process and opinions deriving from it are a microcosm of a seemingly widening gap between generations that needs to be urgently addressed.
The unspoken message is that someone somewhere, with the power to turn attitudes into actions, dreams about returning Gaelic football to a lottery – under the mistaken belief that people will be more engaged by a spectacle of 50-50 balls than the more recent norm of possession underpinned by high quality skills and tactical nous. The good old days.
This attitude, coupled with the predominantly negative and formulaic coverage of Gaelic Football has created a relentless narrative that modern football is devoid of any ambition, spontaneity or soul. The game is beaten down and all associated with it are completely lacking in self confidence about where the game has evolved to.
There is a growing divide between those who play and coach the game and those running the Association. Instead of recognising the strengths of football and examining ways to promote it while steering a continuing evolution we are being sabotaged from within by a lack of understanding.
Currently, to watch, listen to or review games we have to accept a starting premise that the protagonists on all sides are "defensive", "straight-jacketed" and "programmed". Whether the association decision-makers arrived at their position independently or as a result of absorbing these recurring messages really doesn’t matter.
The result is the same either way – we have a leadership that helps promote the propaganda that football is sick and by extension that anyone who contributes to it are colluding to bring the Association down.
Gaelic Football played at the highest level today boasts players with the broadest skillset, best conditioning and most tactically astute decision-making in the history of the game. The combination of these qualities produces a very different spectacle from previous decades but the best games of the summer were still a glorious advertisement. Kildare-Mayo, Armagh-Roscomman and Monaghan-Kerry still linger as classics contests.
To claim that the game has evolved to exactly the spectacle anyone dreams of would be disingenuous but, after generations of tactical naivety, Gaelic football is now played with the best strategic understanding of opportunities and threats that the rules allow. There must surely be an opportunity to find tweaks to those rules that will enable us to grow the game as a saleable product and retain the values and traditions we want.
The most disappointing aspect of the latest proposed rule experiments are that a) they are a missed opportunity, and b) the timing is badly thought out.
Third level leagues run through October and November and if the SCPR were serious they could have examined the game in the first half of the year to present recommendations (or not!) on tweaks to be trialled in October and November. Senior inter-county competitions – even the O’Byrne Cup, etc – are showpiece matches and not the level of football to experiment in. The Allianz League is now the priority competition for a lot of counties across the season and to experiment with rules there is a calamitous approach that shows scant respect for anyone – supporters and players primarily.
The kick-out proposal is now gone but there is merit in both the sin-bin and offensive mark ideas that should be examined. It has to be said that changing the shape of the latter so late in the process reflects very badly on those presiding over it. Both of the final two experiments are so easily ridiculed when you consider the natural use and consequence of them that their respective proposals calls into question the credibility of any process that would perform any due diligence on their implementation.
Players and coaches involved in the practical trials of these rules describe the hand-pass restriction as fundamentally changing the flow of the game – and not in a good way. Scoring rates plummeted and collective defending became more effective. Intelligent players who understand the value of possession will default to safety first as opposed the designers’ wish for them to kick the ball away after three hand-passes. Of course mandating the direction in which sideline restarts must travel is an open invitation for the defending team to flood back and saturate the only areas a kicker can reach – no one who has watched any football lately needs that inevitability explained.
An additional cloud hangs over the endorsement of this year’s proposals by Central Council. It is widely known that the practical implementation of the trial rules in specially convened games was less than satisfactory. Assuming that Central Council apply some kind of logic to their decision making, the real question that needs to be answered is how they could arrive comfortably at the position that these proposals should be brought forward?
It is easy to be critical of the Standing Committee on Playing Rules in this environment but the reality is that they were mandated and briefed on a desired path of travel before they began. What specially commissioned committee has ever reported back after careful consideration that they were unnecessary or unable to make meaningful recommendations?
The make-up and expertise within the committee has been roundly savaged as this process unfolded. After the publication of initial plans most of the rules have been tweaked or in the case of the kick-out, binned. If the examination, consultation and planning phases were comprehensive then why were there changes on foot of public reaction to the initial proposals and further changes after Central Council endorsement?
Catch and kick football is gone and barring the invention of a new sport, it is not coming back. What we have arrived at is a dynamic game that is played most successfully when possession is controlled. If the leadership of the GAA wish to adjust the game towards more turnovers and contests then rules trials should focus on making retaining possession from open play more difficult.
A simple step in the right direction would be to enforce the four step rule instead of the now accepted eight or ten and the arbitrary award of an additional four steps for enduring the indignity of being tackled.
More fundamentally, if we want the game to move in a direction that promotes all of the skills of the game then the rules should promote the skill of tackling and weight one-on-one contests in favour of the tackler. Central to the broad love for hurling is the physicality of tackling – something that is largely frowned upon in football despite the frustrations of the majority of people who watch and play it.
For many years there have been calls to define the tackle and outline what is and is not allowed. More than ever there is a need for a deterrent for the ball carrier to walk willingly into contact. If that can be established then defending teams will feel empowered to press out and hunt the ball back in handito-hand combat. The natural extension of this environment is that there will be less need for cover and extra bodies to defend effectively. Suddenly, the team in possession must move the ball quickly all over the pitch to retain possession and create scores.
The extreme version of this is the Aussie Rules tackle, which allows defenders to stop opponents one-on-one with immediate effect. I believe there is a better hybrid between our current loose conventions and that extreme option which would enable tacklers in our game to be more effective while positively affecting the overall flow and spectacle of our game.
The current path of travel of Gaelic football under administrators who are struggling to hide their contempt for a game they no longer understand is unsustainable. The game is under fire as it transitions from the ancient version to a modern incarnation that can represent the highest levels of skill and athleticism, but it needs direction and leadership.
We have to find a way to tweak what is already a product made up of the very best qualities you could wish for in a dynamic field sport. That can be achieved by consulting with and actually listening to the most informed unit of our membership in this area – the players and coaches. Perennially tweaking unrelated rules hoping for superficial bounces is a waste of time, resources and everyone’s patience.