Storm over rule changes makes for GAA’s winter of discontent

Ard Stiúrthóir of the GAA Tom Ryan, right, and Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael John Horan at the launch of the Publication of the Director General’s Annual Report. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile.

It is hard to talk GAA or any sport this week in Ireland without thinking of today’s funerals of the four young men who lost their lives in a Donegal car crash on Sunday, writes Jack Anderson.

Today, team-mates in tracksuit tops and tears from CLG Chloich Cheann Fhaola and elsewhere will try as best they can to comfort bereft families, friends, and each other.

Sport is, as the late Hugh McIlvanney called it, the great triviality but the local sports club, be it GAA, soccer, etc, has always been more about their community than the games. That strength will be needed in Cloughnaelly and nearby for the next while.

Returning to sport, and this time of year is usually the most hopeful in the GAA club calendar. Managers have been appointed, selectors and coaches confirmed.

The row at the AGM has been forgotten and no one has sulked yet at being dropped, though some are still to return, brooding about last year. Not a game has been lost.

Pre-season training has commenced and this week as muddied laps or some newly fangled high intensity sessions are completed in the snow, someone will bellow: “Lads, this is where championships are won.”

Afterwards the dressing room will be its usual insensitive self and if you have put on a few pounds over Christmas you will likely be told that you have “wintered well”.

At a central level, the GAA has not wintered well. Let’s be honest, it made a mess of the proposed rule changes for Gaelic football.

The Standing Playing Rules Committee (SPRC) gathered data and consulted especially on the handpass restriction but its starting point — we need more kicking and contested possessions in the games — was so far removed from the game as currently coached and played at inter-county level that this was bound to be received with hostility.

Data on how many handpasses happen in a game (the symptom) is secondary as to why so many handpasses occur (the cause, principally the desire to keep possession and avoid turnovers when faced with massed defences).

Collective discontent from the GPA and managers was enough to sway a small number of Central Council delegates and the handpass restriction rule fell away.

Five points struck me when the Central Council’s 25-23 decision was announced.

The first is that there must be very few sports internationally with a reach, size, and budget of the GAA whose central decision-making body is made up of about 50 people. Central Council is way too unwieldy.

Second, in trying to counter the drip feed of negativity from inter-county managers, the chair of the SPRC, David Hassan, and members such as Brian Cuthbert, spoke informatively in the media about what they were trying to achieve.

The Director General, Tom Ryan, as he did on most contentious issues last year in the GAA — Newbridge, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, violence in club games, etc — said nothing.

When the GAA signed its TV deal with Sky and introduced the Super 8s, Ryan’s predeccessor, Paraic Duffy, was front and centre in advocating for and explaining both. You might have disagreed with him, but at least Duffy was out there making the case.

The third point is that once the handpass rule was rejected, there was much keening about the influence of inter-county managers. And yet think about the rule change process from the perspective of an inter-county manager: pre-season training possibly including challenge games (under existing playing rule rules); pre-season competition (played with five experimental rules); final of pre-season competition e.g., McKenna Cup (revert back to normal rules); midweek games involving some of your squad e.g., Sigerson (normal playing rules); national league games (four experimental rules, none of which will be around for this year’s championship).

Managing (even playing) at inter-county level is now a huge logistical undertaking and given these changes, is it any wonder that grievances were aired?

Moreover, Jim Gavin’s comments that inter-county managers should not have a say in rule experiments was not really a criticism of his fellow inter-county mangers but was directed more at the lack of clarity centrally by the GAA on the process as a whole.

The Central Council should have held fast on the rules and let the data emerge. Even after one round of the league, we have already seen some interesting use (particularly by Monaghan) of the offensive mark and equally interesting if cynical ploys used to delay play while a team-mate spends 10 minutes in the sin bin.

Trust the GAA rule book to be so complicated on the sin bin (used in a variety of sports worldwide with little fuss) that it has given itself the ability to warp time itself.

Jim Gavin was also right on a deeper point and whatever about the merits of the five proposed rules, the GAA or the SPRC need first get clarity on what type of game (possession, transition, etc.) is wanted and then implement rules to effect that vision and not the other way around.

The fourth point is that the GAA president suggested that the biggest influence on the Central Council’s decision to reject the handpass restriction rule was not pressure from inter-county players or managers but the difficulties for referees.

If you think about it, and for all of us committed to the GAA, that was a cringeworthy excuse; seeming to say that inter-county referees had difficulties counting to three.

If referees did have difficulty why not support them — as in the international rules series where a restriction on handpassing is also in place — and trial an extra referee in inter-county games?

As highlighted by a number of experienced coaches in the GAA, the benefit of having two referees is that while referee A is dealing with the handpass chain etc, referee B can police the pulling and dragging that is taking place in the other half of the field to prevent forward runs for the delivered ball.

In a contact sport, rule changes are predicated on three principles — stability, safety, and skill. The stability principle says that before experimenting with rule changes you ensure that existing rules are being implemented properly. The tackle and steps in possession are examples of Gaelic football rules that could be looked at here.

The stability principle can be seen recently to good effect in hurling in efforts to implement, rather than tinker with, the handpass rule.

Throwing instead of handpassing the ball has been a feature of hurling for quite some time. The first All-Ireland I was at in 1981 (and if Dick Clerkin is reading this, I was one of those pesky eight-year-olds lifted over the stile and left with a lifetime of memories) when Johnny Flaherty threw/passed (delete as appropriate) the ball into a Galway net and won Offaly’s first hurling title.

The safety principles can be seen to good effect at present in rugby as the game experiments with rules to lower the tackle line and also in hurling with the recent edict to referees on head high/helmet area collisions.

The skill principle, usually favouring scoring forwards, is probably the one that really undermined the SPRC’s handpass restriction. The three handpass rule limited the options of skilful forwards in setting up and finishing scoring plays.

The final reflection on the proposed rule changes to Gaelic football is on the rather odd argument that if changes are not taken on board now in 2019 and brought forward to the 2020 Congress, then it will be another five years before changes can be considered. This is because the GAA Congress has previously decided that rule changes can only be discussed in years “divisible by five”.

And in exasperation you can only ask: if there is a five-year limitation on rule changes then why have rules committee that can only be appointed for three years?

Jack Anderson is Professor of Sports Law at the University of Melbourne.

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