GAA Football

Jarlath Burns surprised the 'mark' has worked so quickly

Paddy O'Connor of Sligo wins an aerial ball against Antrim. The 'mark' has made a positive impact since its introduction at the start of the year

JARLATH Burns has been “pleasantly surprised” by the positive impact the ‘mark’ has made since it was introduced to Gaelic football at the start of the year and imagined it taking much longer to bed in.

Burns, who chairs the GAA’s Playing Rules Committee, revealed the group plans to table a further proposal at Special Congress that is designed to shift the focus further away from teams using the short kick-out.

Ten months ago, Burns faced a barrage of criticism for promoting the ‘mark’ – a player catching a kick-out between the two ‘45s and having the option to play on or restart the game.

The critics forecast the new rule would slow the game down and encourage more defensive play.

However, anecdotal evidence so far suggests the ‘mark’ has opened up the game and removed untidy tangles in the middle of the field.

“I suppose the fear is, whenever you bring a rule change in, you’re at the mercy of coaches and how they’re going to interpret it,” Burns explained.

“I remember someone saying to me: ‘Whenever the man catches the ball, he’s going to get a free anyway so you might as well hit him.’

“I was hoping that didn’t become a feature of it but that didn’t happen. Apart from that, I was very confident that once it got up and running, high fielding would become a feature of the game again.”

Renowned for his high fielding prowess during his playing days with Armagh, the 1999 Ulster-winning captain added: “Actually, I didn’t think the benefit of the ‘mark’ would be seen for at least another five years because the habits we have in today’s game are embedded in teams: short kick-outs, pass, pass, keep possession.

“I was thinking more where an U16 coach would see a tall player and say: ‘Right, we’re going to turn him into a midfielder because if he catches the ball he gives us an advantage.’

“I really thought it would be a lot longer before people would be starting to nod their head in approval. So it’s quite a pleasant surprise.”

Burns admitted he was “taken aback” by the damning appraisals of the rule change before it even reached a football field.

Many players and managers criticised it on the basis that there was no need to tamper with the rules.

“I was taken aback by the response – even by midfielders,” the Silverbridge man said.

“Michael Dara McAuley wrote on Twitter: ‘Please leave the rules alone – there’s nothing wrong with them.’

“And Aidan O’Shea criticised it too – men who would benefit from it. I wouldn’t mind a back-lash now if it hadn’t worked out – but I got what you call a front-lash, 10 months before it was even brought in as there were some quite irrational arguments and people saying it was going to slow the game down. I was thinking: ‘Are these people watching the same game I’m watching?’”

Much to Donegal’s surprise, Tyrone decided to go long with the majority of their kick-outs in their emphatic Ulster semi-final win in Clones a few weeks ago.

Burns also lauded the high fielding of Tyrone’s Colm Cavanagh and praised Red Hands boss Mickey Harte for maximising the advantages of the ‘mark’.

“Whenever a team pushes up on the kick-outs and you kick the ball long, you can turn and you’re only facing six defenders in front of you rather than a blanket.

“But, I mean, Colm Cavanagh is an outstanding fielder of the ball, always has been. I just think the ‘mark’ has allowed him to reveal his skill that had almost been hidden.

“Now, I’m not going to take the credit for that, and Tyrone were at pains to say that it wasn’t the ‘mark’ that won them the game against Donegal.

“But certainly a feature of that game was the catching of Colm Cavanagh and it has brought his game to a whole new realm of respect in the GAA.

“It is simply Mickey Harte using whatever he has at his disposal to the advantage of the team. That’s why he’s such a fantastic manager.”

For some GAA observers, the ‘mark’ didn’t go far enough and that the blanket defence was the biggest scourge of Gaelic football.

“You could go through an entire game and you wouldn’t even see the ‘mark’. In fact, if you took a stranger to a GAA match you wouldn’t even know that there was a rule relating to it.

“It’s an instinctive part of the game; it doesn’t stop the game. You can catch a ball and play on.

“The initial criticism didn’t affect me too much – I’m not precious about that kind of thing. But it was certainly interesting to listen to some of the debate.

“In fairness, some people were saying we needed to do something more radical to try and stop the blanket defence.

“But to bring in something more radical like that would bring in all sorts of disastrous, unintended consequences.

“Being in this position is wonderful, until you’re in the position I’m in, which is in charge of rule changes because whenever you bring in a rule change, you’re changing the rule in every single Gaelic game that is played. You can’t mess around with it and that is why we always move slowly.”

Burns already feels the blanket defence will evolve out of the game because of the committee’s subtle rule changes as well as the overarching philosophy of the top teams in the country.

“I think we’re moving towards the latter stages of the blanket defence. If you look at the most successful teams in the GAA – Kerry, Dublin and Mayo – that is not a feature of their game. Their game is attacking all the time, using an extra man [an overlapping run] and using their fitness.”

Before he bows out of the chairmanship next year, Burns would also like to see kick-outs going beyond the 21-metre line, which will come up for debate at Special Congress at the end of September.

“I feel the short kick-out is starting to become a liability,” he said.

“It cost Monaghan the match against Down last Saturday night. We’re trying to bring another disincentive in to goalkeepers using the short kick-out.”

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