GAA Football

Cahair O'Kane: Rules must change before we're all bored to death

Slaughtneil players congratulate each other while Magherafelt trudge off the pitch after the Derry Senior Football Championship match at Owenbeg on Sunday night. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

HISTORY will perhaps come to regard England’s success in the 2003 Rugby World Cup as a turning point for the sport.

They went to Australia with a monstrous, aggressive pack and a fly-half that couldn’t miss. Their bludgeoning ways were not pretty. The host country’s media were calling them rugby’s answer to Steve Davis.

After years of English failure, Clive Woodward took what tools had at his disposal, he took the rules as they were, and he manufactured a style of play that would bring the Webb Ellis Cup to England for the first time.

Whether you liked it or not, their methods were an example of great coaching.

That’s what coaching is. Finding something new, something different, something that suits the players you have and gives you a chance of winning. It can’t always be positive and it isn’t always negative either.

The onus was not on Clive Woodward to play glorious attacking rugby. His job was to win, and that’s what he did.

That’s the same in any sport.

Some in the GAA live in a fantasy world in which we’re immune to the idea of winning.

On Sunday evening in Owenbeg, the 5,000 people present will never forget an eminently forgettable game between Slaughtneil and Magherafelt.

The debate has been raging over the past 36 hours, and a lot of it about who was to blame for Padraig Cassidy standing on his own 45’ soloing the ball to himself for three, four minutes of a senior championship game.

It definitely wasn’t Slaughtneil’s fault. They were leading the game and playing into a gale. Magherafelt had their entire 15 back inside their own half. There was neither reason nor incentive for Slaughtneil to go in there.

The Rossas are bearing the brunt of the public’s harsh blame. Their manager Adrian Cush was an outstanding forward for Tyrone for many years. He and his management team had worked exceptionally hard with Magherafelt to try and rid them of 40 years of underachievement in championship football.

They felt that their best chance of winning the game was to shut it down. With five championship debutants up against a side showing just two changes from the 2016 All-Ireland club final, the Rossas wanted to keep it tight.

At 0-7 to 0-4 down in the middle of the second half, they had achieved that. But their attacking play was poor and they scored just once from play, a score which came after 90 seconds of the game.

It was a flawed plan but they all are in some way. Slaughtneil are three games from becoming the first team ever to win five Derry senior titles in a row. Everything’s been tried on them.

Magherafelt felt that dropping back was their best chance. Like it or not, they were entitled to employ such tactics.

It’s not Adrian Cush’s job to make the game entertaining. It’s his job to win.

And he's far from the only one to have tried it.

You often hear it said that coaches have a responsibility to the game. You’d like to think it would be true, but their only responsibility is to the players and the club at their command.

It’s up to the administrators to protect the game. Nobody else.

When sports become tedious to watch, the rules change. Right through the history of sport, from one side of the globe to the other, that's how it's worked.

Gaelic football has become tedious. It's not dead, but it is struggling with itself.

Dublin have been held up as an example of all that’s good about the game, yet this idea of keeping possession and avoiding contact at all costs originates largely from them.

The game has evolved over the last 18 months and is a more offensive spectacle now than it was then. But the issue it has is that it’s simply too easy to keep the ball off the opposition.

A football pitch measures 12,500 square yards. Most players, right from the goalkeeper now, are comfortable in possession. So the risk of pushing up and trying to defend man-for-man far outweighs the potential reward for most teams.

And that’s why we end up with spectacles like we had on Sunday evening. Slaughtneil and Magherafelt did what they thought was best for themselves.

The real issue is with the rules.

Change does not have to be overly radical. Certain ideas with merit, such as keeping a certain number of players up the pitch, would be unenforceable at club level.

The most obvious solution is a back-court rule similar to the one in basketball. Except that instead of applying it only to the halfway line, the ball would not be allowed to be played back across any line on the pitch once it’s gone past it.

With each line the team in possession crosses, the playing surface gets smaller and the reward for pressing out potentially becomes greater. It would also put an onus on more rapid counter-attacking play, and that in turn would hopefully see more players staying higher up the pitch as part of the natural evolution.

The exception would be inside the attacking 65’, as to enforce a rule of that nature on the scoring zone would become too restrictive for the attacking team. They should be able to recycle the ball inside the opposition’s half.

It might not be perfect, but it would be relatively easy to enforce and it would rid the game of the long spells of nothingness that have become a blight on the game.

We can’t expect coaches to solve it. That’s not their job.

Innovation backbones a sport’s evolution, but not all change is good. The history of sport is laced with examples of the rule-makers adapting to their game's evolution.

Rugby dealt with England’s bludgeoning with a series of tweaks to their rules. When the northern hemisphere didn’t adapt, it got its comeuppance at the 2015 World Cup, with none of its teams making even a semi-final.

Gaelic football is tantalisingly close to being a great spectator sport. Most of the ingredients are there. On its good days, it’s exceptional.

But the rules have to catch up, and they need to do it before we’re all bored to death.

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