Enda McGinley: GAA hand-pass rule akin to restricting grand masters on chess board
In the next month the GAA hierarchy will determine whether or not to offer the new rule proposals a full-blown trial in the National League.
This step in the decision-making process was created so that the rules could be stopped from being applied or adapted as required if it was judged from the pre-season competitions that, in their current state, they were not fit for use in the bigger competition.
The cynic in me felt that this step was only ever offered up to placate those with significant reservations thus getting the rules trial sanctioned at the initial stage.
In the next few weeks the accuracy or otherwise of this suspicion will be laid bare.
What I certainly feel is the purely footballing merits on show over the initial pre-season games may have much less of an influence on the decision than would have been expected if looking at the process simplistically.
On one side of it this is fair.
Judging the impact of the rule changes on games between, essentially trial squads, who are only starting into their pre-league preparations and where referees are only getting to grips with them, would hardly be fully informed decision-making.
Early season games lack any sort of the intensity which brings out the risk averse, defensive and slow-moving play that (I assume) is the primary target of the new rules.
Again reflecting back to the initial peace offering of review post-McKenna Cup level competitions, this is part of my reasoning that the early-season games were never really supposed to be a serious trial where evidence gained would be enough to throw out the rule change proposals.
Some early trends are certainly very apparent without too much need for any great powers of deduction.
Managers are not fans.
The primary source of frustration is the three hand-pass rule and, overall, the rules are not having a major impact with games continuing to follow relatively familiar patterns.
The frustration with the hand-pass rule brings a number of things into focus.
Firstly it has directly penalised the attacking team and often in the very situation where they are trying to work themselves through crowded defences.
In doing so, it has increased the advantage of the crowded defence by creating the very currency it deals in, ‘turn-overs’.
Given players are programmed from their first experience of competitive football to avoid turn-overs, especially unforced ones.
The fourth pass error is exactly that and players will be mindful when receiving a third pass, that they are either taking a man on and shooting or looking for a kick pass.
Consider that often this scenario will occur in advanced attacking positions, the only kick-pass option is likely to be a long kick backwards to players outside the defensive screen.
I can already hear the groans that this sort of play would generate.
A quick review of football top scores on YouTube of 2017 and 2018 shows a few things:
(a): The quality and amount of scores is probably better than it has ever been
(b): Many depend on fist passes as the final release of the player onto goal or into scoring space.
Whilst the highlights reels didn’t often show enough of the build-up to count the total fist-passes the prominence of the final fist pass bears out the experience in the initial games and the incidences players are most often caught foul of the new rule.
Of course the rule proposers will argue that teams who embrace the earlier kick pass will still be able to use a final fist pass to get a player in on goal.
The issue with this, and for me, a key issue around the whole thing, is the restriction of options for the attacking team.
Both the forward mark and the fist-pass rule create a bias where the greatest likelihood of creating scores is long early ball into the full-forward line (oh, how the traditionalists hearts must lift at those words).
Nothing wrong with this, it is a great style of play…. when it is the right decision.
Opponents however will know this too and many will choose to likely use at least one, if not two sweepers or midfielders dropping early to close the gaps.
Again the counter argument to this is that such teams will struggle from an attacking point of view to win a game but often weaker teams will look to frustrate and limit their opponents and hope to catch them with break-out scores.
It is the very origin of the popularity of the blanket defence and these rules may strengthen it.
If a team faces into a defensive blanket now and that long ball isn’t on, I don’t expect them to kick it in aimlessly.
I predict they will use their fist passes then turn and kick it back 30-40yds and start again.
Hardly an enticing thought.
Defenders too would, if the rules come in long-term, very quickly realise that as that third fist pass is made, its recipient is a great target for a turnover as their choices are limited to either taking them on or kicking it.
Cue overcrowding this third pass receiver and another turnover for the defending team.
The problem with any of this is that the knock-on effects and counter moves by managers and teams cannot be foreseen and will be no clearer after the National League.
Akin to suddenly restricting the movements of chess pieces on grand masters, it completely alters the game and would take much time to learn the new permutations of the most effective attacking and defensive tactics.
Yet a committee, buoyed up by significant public mood for change and having spent nigh on a year discussing and bringing forward these proposals, are unlikely to be swayed by managers or such like.
There are a number of things that need to continue to be assessed.
The impact of the rules, and not just the fist-pass one, particularly from the attacking teams perspective and whether or not the rule changes makes passages of slow lateral play and reverse passing, that feels so removed from the game at its best, less likely.
On first review it doesn’t seem it, but, when there is a mood for change and when the committee charged with achieving it, has come up with these changes they so obviously believe in, then it can set in process a motion where changes are applied even if they many suspect they are detrimental.
That scenario sound familiar?
Anyway, when all is said and done, the key decision facing GAA authorities is whether or not to address the perceived woes of the modern game by restricting the options and consequently decision-making of probably the most skilful players the game has had when they are on the ball.