Christy O'Connor: Can the advanced mark be considered a success?

Christy O'Connor: Can the advanced mark be considered a success?
Dublin’s Ciarán Kilkenny of Dublin calls a ‘mark’ after catching the ball ahead of Kerry full back Tadhg Morley, during the Allianz FL match at Croke Park in January. Picture: Sportsfile

Can the advanced mark be considered a success?

When Dublin and Kerry squared off on the opening night of the football league in January, it took until shortly before half-time for the first advanced mark of the campaign to be taken. Conor McHugh won the ball, claimed the mark, and kicked it over the bar. Just like that. The wonder was that it took so long to arrive.

The only other two advanced marks came late on, both of which yielded key scores. Three in total seemed a light load, especially after so much chaos surrounding the mark was anticipated when the final clarifications and interpretations on the new rules were only released days beforehand.

Dublin and Kerry didn’t really have time to practise the mark. That was obvious because when both sides tried to secure an advanced mark, the timing of their kicks, and the forwards runs, were too often off line to nail them.

Over that opening weekend, there was 0-17 scored from advanced marks. Laois though, skewed the average because they bagged four points from advanced marks, from four different players – Colm Murphy, Evan O’Carroll, Kieran Lillis and Ross Munnelly.

That wasn’t a total surprise either because much of Laois’s promotion from Division 3 last year had centred on the ability of O’Carroll and Donie Kingston to claim possessions. O’Carroll and Kingston were even more proficient at the tactic because both are quality freetakers.

With 16 matches played on that opening weekend, that average of just over 0-1 per game from marks has largely held. With 12 of those scores coming in Divisions 1 and 2, and with 12 of the 16 teams in Divisions 3 and 4 failing to score from an advanced mark on that opening weekend, Division 1 is the best case-study to crunch the numbers to date; the average has worked out at just below 0-1 per game, with 0-18 advanced marks scored across 20 Division 1 matches.

The numbers do not include incidences where marks were awarded but the player opted to play on. Still, the figures have underlined the minimal impact the new rule has had at this level so far.

On the otherhand, was it realistic to expect that much change with the advanced mark? It’s still early in the season. The weather was horrendous, which meant teams were more intent on protecting their possession, especially on poor pitches. The league was harder again – especially for teams in Divisions 2 and 3 – to experiment with a new rule when securing points was such a priority.

The advanced mark was also going to be a huge cultural change, especially when players are so used to kicking and passing the ball into space. When building attacks now, especially from deep, the natural instinct of most players is to pop the ball in front of the runner or receiver.

The championship may see teams utilise the advanced mark more often, but the first, and preferred option, is often that bouncing ball into a forward’s chest.

“The mark requires a very unique kind of kick in the first place,” says Stevie Poacher, former Carlow coach, who now coaches the Down minors. “And those kick-passes are mostly high-risk. How many teams are being coached now to gamble and take risks? Very few.”

The most sublime long kick-pass in last year’s championship was a Diarmuid Connolly floated arrow over the head of Brian Ó Beaglaoich and into the hands of Ciarán Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final replay. Even if the advanced mark was in place, Kilkenny would still have more than likely chosen to do what he did – turn inside on his left and kick the ball over the bar.

Who else is going to try, or execute, that kind of a Connolly pass? The flipside is that the advanced mark doesn’t have to be about long and accurate kick-passing, and high fielding. A catch made between the legs or on the chest is the equivalent of one above the head.

The advanced mark can be made upon receiving a 20 metre kick from a lateral pass just outside the 45 metre-line. When Down beat Derry in Round 2 in Newry in February, the decisive late score came from a Barry O’Hagan mark, which was gathered from a long lateral pass kicked just outside the 45-metre line.

“And then Barry took over 20 seconds to take the shot,” says Poacher. “To me, it takes too much of the natural flow out of the game. I think it could also reduce goal chances. Forwards may just take that mark out of safety whereas there could be another player coming off his shoulder looking for that pop-pass.”

The advanced mark is intended to reward kick-passing. The data from the 2019 league showed a 24% increase in the average number of foot passes compared to the 2018 championship. It also resulted in a 6% increase in foot passes and provided for the first reduction in the ratio of hand-passing to foot-passing in ten years (3.5: 1 in the 2018 championship to 2.9:1 in the 2009 NFL).

Those numbers are contaminated by the reality that some teams ignored the advanced mark last spring, because it wasn’t used in the championship. It’s difficult to know the real benefits just yet but there are some if teams bring new ways of thinking in trying to open up pockets of space up front.

Creative and intelligent movement combined with a smarter appreciation of space could see inside forwards maximise their return on the mark. Yet kickers would also need to be more in tune with that movement. Having good fielders close to goal would facilitate more of a route-one tactic, especially when so many modern defenders have been mostly coached to break the ball.

The whole ethos and coaching philosophy around the advanced mark is still evolving. It’s early days and it would take a full season for more clearer details to emerge on its full merits.

And to see if teams choose to embrace, or ignore, the advanced mark.

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