Jim Gavin is gone but his words as much as his deeds in inter-county Gaelic football remain.
Last March, he warned that the game was “just one rule change away from becoming Aussie Rules football” following the trial of the advance mark in the National League. That alteration has since been made permanent.
Gavin’s alarm wasn’t shared by most delegates at Special Congress in Cork in October. Discussion on the matter was scant (apart from the concerns of former national match officials manager Pat Doherty about the difficulty the proposed rule would present referees). In all, the process from proposing to the vote itself lasted less than five minutes and it received 68.9% support.
Even GAA president John Horan was surprised by how easily it passed. “I thought the debate on that would have been far more comprehensive, probably a little more divisive than it actually was. You saw the level of debate. We are where we are. That’s the democracy we have, that’s what we produce. So we have to move on.”
Horan was then asked about the burden it would put onreferees. He cited the playing rules committee’s findings that it wouldn’t impact unduly on officials unlike the doomed hand-pass limit proposal. However, Doherty’s concern should have resonated while the likes of leading referee David Gough have since expressed fear it brings “added difficulty” for the men in black. It will be interesting to see how accurately measured those minimum 20-metre kicks from outside the 45m line will be particularly when 13m is the distance they are most familiar with (minimum kick-out length, minimumdistance an opponent can stand away from a free).
It’s Gavin’s alarm at what the rule could mean to the very essence of the game which is of most interest. It is now possible to make a mark anywhere on the field. At least the kick-out version now seems a complete rule with the introduction of the 20m kick-out (goodbye quick restart) but it — like the advanced mark — does not exclusively reward high fielding. A fetch made between the legs or on the chest is the equivalent of one above the head.
But at least the kick-out mark tries to promote the soaring fielder. The advanced mark can be made upon receiving a 20m kick from outside the 45m that is almost lateral.
There were examples of it last spring when the likes of Conor McManus and Dean Rock showed deep for such passes and were able to point their marks from distance. McManus and Rock’s finishing skills are exquisite but they might agree being awarded what is effectively a free for catching a ball in a less contested area is not in the spirit of the rule.
The reward for such enterprise seem to far outweigh those offered to a full-forward catching in a central area inside the 20m line when he is more than likely going to play on so close to goal. Just as it won’t be long before teams cotton on to realities such as mark snipers, they will be quick to counteract it too perhaps leading to more stacked defences.
Counties, namely those in Division 2 and 3 and the Championship-related repercussions of promotion and relegation between the two, have more reason than ever to be prepared for this forthcoming league.
For that very reason, they should be well acquainted with the advanced mark from the outset but it is slightly troubling that such a new rule could have a telling effect on a league where the stakes have never been greater for so many teams.
No, the counties can’t say they weren’t warned but then the likes of Mickey Harte mightn’t have anticipated it would have put Cathal McShane in the shop window for AFL clubs. Switching McShane to full-forward as he did last spring was partly precipitated by the experiment of the advanced rule.
So successful was McShane in the position — he converted four marks in the last three League games including two against Dublin — that he was retained there for the summer and earned an All-Star.
As a trial rule last year, McShane was effectively participating in an AFL trial. It would be ignorant to say he wasn’t already on the radar of AFL clubs but his strength and ability to win ball inside would likely have made up the minds of recruiters. And at the late recruiting age of 24, it would appear only recent events have convinced those Down Under to make offers McShane couldn’t dismiss.
It would be cruelly ironic if Harte, who has long opposed the International Rules series, contributed to a star pupil of his being recruited by an AFL club. But those are the perils of fundamental playing rules changes. As Gavin might say, it feels less like our game.
Christmas wasn’t cancelled for the All-Ireland semi-finalists but it certainly was curtailed.
Borris-Ileigh and Slaughtneil were just two of the teams that trained on St Stephen’s Day.
“We are privileged to be in this position but it does put a fierce dampener on our Christmas,” Brendan Maher told TG4 after Sunday’s victory over St Thomas’.
"If it is going to be in a calendar year, it should be in a calendar year. Finish before Christmas and let whoever wins it, and the teams involved, enjoy themselves.”
Before helping to see off Slaughtneil, Joey Holden has spoken about the sacrifices Ballyhale, who trained the day after St Stephen’s Day, had to make over the festive period. Like Maher with Tipperary, he and others on the Kilkenny panel missed out on the county team holiday but he was more concerned with the impact the scheduling had on others over the Christmas period.
“It’s more difficult on the partners that were looking forward to it and couldn’t go away during the summer because we were with Kilkenny. It’s hard on them so I do feel for them but sometimes you have to be selfish.”
Although next season’s semi-finals are being brought forward to December, the finals will again take place in January so there will be at least one more year of such sacrifices for the last teams standing.
The GAA are working their way towards a calendar year — it’s not an overnight possibility, especially for dual counties who need and deserve time to readjust — but for those giving most, it can’t come soon enough.
When we rang up Dara Ó Cinnéide a couple of months ago, we did so on the premise that he was part of the committee that first proposed lower league counties being removed from the qualifiers.
In the wake of the second-tier football competition being introduced, the call was an attempt to get his perspective on how history was repeating itself.
What followed wasn’t what was expected. Instead of discussing systems, Ó Cinnéide spoke of sensibilities:
"That’s the biggest threat to the GAA than chaotic fixtures list; that’s just a symptom of it.”
Consider the growing number of inter-county players removing themselves from panels and the question that Kildare forward Daniel Flynn asked before he quit for the 2019 season has never been more pertinent — is the juice worth the squeeze?
Gary Brennan, Michael Quinlivan, and Philip Mahony are amongst the high-profile figures to step away from county commitments. It is a list that will grow and grow.