John McEntee: Let's get current rules right in the GAA before introducing new ones

Referee Conor Lane gives Niall Sludden a black card during Tyrone’s Division One loss to Mayo in Omagh on Sunday – yet another controversial application of the rule. Picture by Seamus Loughran 

THE GAA introduced the black card in January 2014 despite stubborn opposition by six of the Ulster counties: Armagh, Tyrone, Antrim, Fermanagh, Down and Donegal. 

In the end, the new rule was passed with a two-thirds majority. Three years on and one could not say with confidence that our referees apply the rule with clarity and consistency. If you disagree, just flick through the Twitter feeds relating to last weekend’s matches to get a sense of the discontent out there.

I think the GAA made a mistake introducing the black card. Should a re-run of that vote occur, Ulster would not be the only province to say ‘No’.

Is it because the black card was designed to address too many offences and has introduced uncertainty and another layer of decision making into an already overworked official’s mind? 

Is it because players have gotten cute and when they foul an opponent they sow seeds of doubt in the referee by saying their actions were accidental and not deliberate? 

Or is it that the penalty penalises the player but not the team? 

Regrettably, we see players at all grades deliberately fouling their opponent to prevent them scoring, particularly in the latter stages of games, which invokes a black card. 

The player is sent off only to be replaced by fresh legs. I struggle to see how that punishment matches the crime. It’s particularly frustrating when one considers that each team can accrue three black cards per game before going down to 14 men. Cynical play is alive and well in the GAA. 

At the same congress ‘the mark’ was rejected but was eventually passed in 2016 and introduced to the rule book on January 1 2017. Initial itches associated with introducing any change in rules were scratched as players, officials and supporters got used to the mark. 

The issue precipitating the introduction of this rule was that midfielders were fetching kickouts and, immediately upon landing, were being smothered and stripped of possession. Some viewed this as marring the game. Shorter kick-outs, with a compulsion for possession, was an inevitable consequence. 

Almost overnight, goalies are looking further than the end of their nose for a quick chip out and are varying the length of their kick-out.

 The person most happy is the county corner-back who can get back to doing what they are most comfortable with – defending. Talk to the players and you get a general sense that the rule was well thought out – proof that a rule which targets a specific problem can make a difference, even during its infancy. I want to give this rule a chance and I am optimistic it will make a difference.

So I ask myself: why are the GAA signalling their intention to introducing a rule which prevents the goalie from taking out a short kick-out? Do GAA rule-makers not want our game to evolve, for managers to be innovative?

The GAA cannot and should not be prescriptive on how the game is played, so long as it is within the rules as they exist. Different ways of playing the game are to be embraced. Modern managers should be credited with thinking more about how the game is played and for trying to outfox their opponents. They should not be castigated for it.

Repetitive short kick-outs are a relatively new development in the past 10 years. The kick-out went to the player nearest the goalie then endeavoured to work it all the way up to the other goals. As already noted, it was as a consequence of challenges securing possession in the midfield sector. Possession was king. 

Stephen Cluxton is credited with this evolution, but I remember Tyrone employing this tactic in the late 90s/early noughties at a time when their midfielders were smaller than the typical inter-county eight and nine.

The better teams no longer concede possession. They are pressing up on the opposing defence to put the goalie under huge pressure. Dublin and Kerry in particular do this to great effect. 

In last year’s All-Ireland
semi-final, Kerry pushed so far forward on Dublin’s kick-outs that they deliberately left key Dublin forwards unmarked inside their own 20-metre line. It paid dividends and clearly rattled Stephen Cluxton. While Dublin were the eventual victors, it has changed how managers strategise over opposing kick-outs.

It is time to review rules and park any notion of introducing new one. My advice to the GAA rule committee is to concentrate their energies on reviewing the black card by asking three simple questions: 

What is the issue – not issues – it aims to address?

Is it effective and, if not, why not? 

Crucially, is the punishment a real deterrent? 

Teams, not individuals win Championships. Therefore, for a sanction to be effective it must punish the team. Supporters understand that not everything works as intended. Often the creation of a rule is a journey rather than an isolated decision. 

The poet and civil rights activist Nikki Giovanni once said: “Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to the error that counts.”

The rules committee must decide to acknowledge the error and revise a rule. Without adherence to the qualities of clarity and consistency the rules committee run the risk of losing a greater quality: their integrity.

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