Cahair O'Kane: GAA must ignore coaches and players when it comes to rule changes
“Down here they say ‘rattlesnakes don’t commit suicide’.”
Agent Rupert Anderson in ‘Mississippi Burning’
THREE weeks ago, the AFL had one of its great Grand Finals, in which West Coast Eagles came from 29 points down to beat Collingwood.
Last weekend, their commissioning body announced nine rule changes to the game. Some minor, some a bit more significant. Because nothing’s ever perfect, and one swallow does not a summer make.
You will no doubt be aware that the GAA’s Standing Committee on Playing Rules [SCPR] recently proposed something similar in the form of five significant changes to the way Gaelic football is played.
Right now, they’re slap bang in the middle of a consultation process that will determine whether the ideas ever see the light of a trial, never mind the long-term shelter of the rulebook.
The SCPR are starting at the very bottom of Kilimanjaro. In the snow. With no boots. Or hat.
The negativity that they’ll inevitably be met with tends to be bred by those that stand to lose the most by allowing the game to change.
It starts, almost exclusively, with coaches. That then feeds into the minds of players.
For example, speaking while he was enjoying Scotstown’s fourth consecutive county title last week, Monaghan midfielder Darren Hughes questioned whether members of the SCPR had “even played the game”.
“It's embarrassing for some of that rules committee that some of that went to print. There's no logic to it at all - I don't know if they even played the game.
“It was embarrassing to even read it, that they actually sat down and wasted time - they probably got expenses to go and do it - and that they let that go to print…”
The Monaghan side that Hughes has enjoyed such success with have been a glowing parable for the virtues of keeping possession.
They are a side that, for instance, had Donegal’s number in 2013 and 2015 because of the methodical way in which they would switch the ball from wing-to-wing, waiting for the opportune moment to break into the space.
It was a masterclass from Malachy O’Rourke in the coaching sense. Genius. But that didn’t make it in any way attractive.
Monaghan won two Ulster titles in that mould. And while the realisation that they had to adapt this year no doubt aided them, they aren’t, and never would be, gung-ho.
Hughes’ own role was a major factor in conceding just two goals on the All-Ireland stage. One was off the hoof-catch-finish Kerry produced in Clones, and the other was Niall Sludden’s Croke Park dagger that fell at his feet after a Hughes block that would have gone down beside Conor Gormley’s as one of the greatest ever, had the end result not been as it was.
It suits Monaghan to be allowed to perfect a counter-attacking game.
And they had found themselves on the other end of the paddle when Fermanagh put their entire team inside their own 45' and worked like dogs to stop them in the Ulster semi-final.
It worked, and it gave Fermanagh one of its greatest days. Same as it did for Carlow over the last two years.
It's no wonder that a significant proportion of players wouldn't want new rules implemented. Those proposed by the SCPR go against the principle of 'defence first'.
The one proposal that Hughes did offer a hint of backing to was the idea of the attacking mark.
In a small straw poll last week with ten random inter-county footballers from around Ulster, which will appear in The Irish News across today and tomorrow, all ten notably gave their backing to trialling that particular proposal.
It, of the five proposals put forward, does seem the most likely to make it to the trial phase.
Beyond that and a lukewarm thumbs-up for the sin bin, there is likely to be resistance to change found in the ongoing GPA survey of players, which has received 200 responses to date.
The culture of keeping possession above everything else has taken such deep root that players seem unable to see the trees through the wood.
With regard to the proposal that all sideline kicks must be played forward, Down half-back Caolan Mooney said: “A sideline is there for teams to retain possession. Forcing a team to kick forward with players marked would mean there’s more of a risk of losing the ball.”
Armagh captain Rory Grugan added: “I understand that these rules are being introduced to improve the game as a spectacle, but even as a neutral watching a game, I don’t see anything untoward about kicking a set piece backwards to retain possession and begin your attack.”
Yet in their work, which relied on seven years’ worth of painstaking research provided by Rob Carroll, the SCPR found that more than half of all sideline kicks taken this year in the defensive half of the field went backwards, and that more than a third in the opponents’ did the same.
Players want to keep possession because the cost of giving it away has become so unpalatable. They won’t get it back until after the opposition has had a shot.
Compared to 10 years ago, a team at inter-county level now has 20 fewer possessions in a game.
It’s dropped from an average of 65 to 45. The average team will produce a shot from around 50 per cent of its possessions. Average scores are rising all the time.
With 45 possessions, you’ll maybe get 23 shots on average. You might need 18, 19, 20 scores to win. So teams literally cannot afford to give the ball away without getting a shot off.
So not giving it away has become the most important thing in football. Players want to win games, and having the ball helps them do that.
Because of that, players have been coached to approach any new situation with fear. The first thought has become: ‘What happens if this goes wrong?’
The difficulty in getting the ball back has twisted the entire logic of football. It’s no longer logical to take risks with the ball.
It’s only if the rules of the game are such that negativity is effectively outlawed, that coaches will have no choice but to think of new ways to be positive.
That’s not to have a kick at coaching. There are some outstanding tactical minds in the GAA. The quality of coaching has never been higher.
But good coaching often does not mean a good spectacle. And often a coach’s reality will be so wrapped up in putting barricades up to the opposition’s bulldozers that they forget that they have an army of their own.
That is the undoing of their great work, and our great sport.
On the whole, footballers now are better than they’ve ever been. They’re fitter, faster, more skilful.
The SCPR’s job is, in a nutshell, to make football a better game to look at.
And to do that, they need to introduce a little anarchy. Bring a bit of chaos to the game.
Coaches and players don’t want chaos. They want control. So if it’s left up to them, the game will stay almost exactly as it is.
So no matter how much they plea that we must “listen to the players”, that is the last thing that the GAA can do in this process.
Because rattlesnakes don’t commit suicide.