KIERAN SHANNON: Colleges, not League, the place to trial football’s rules

Action from the 2018 Sigerson Cup final between UCD and NUI Galway.

Turlough O’Brien may have been a tad hyperbolic when he claimed the proposed rule changes to football are reflective of a 1940s mindset yearning for the days when players donned flat caps, but certainly the suggested place for such experimentation smacks of a mentality that’s anachronistic.

The late JJ Barrett – journalist, player, coach, poet – was giving an insight into more than the Kerry psyche but the wider footballing public when he once penned in The Squeeze the verse:

The National League

Was only there for fun,

The serious stuff

Would have begun In July,

and Finished in September

These days the serious stuff begins far earlier than July. For plenty of counties, it starts in January. The national league is no longer only there for fun. It is no rehearsal or warm-up or stepping stone to championship. To the likes of O’Brien and almost every other manager outside of Division One, it is as important as championship. It isn’t their Junior Cert or mock Leaving. It’s their Leaving Cert, the championship almost like the old Matric – bonus, back-up territory.

Take Clare, though their manager Colm Collins has been more measured and accepting in his response to the proposed rule changes. In the Munster championship they reverted to what they were back in JJ’s time wearing the green and gold, mere feeding fodder for Kerry, being thumped by 22 points. In the qualifiers, they lost for the second consecutive year at the last-16 stage, this time to Armagh. Failing to play into July – when the serious stuff would only have previous begun – would hardly appear to qualify as a successful season yet that’s how the Clare public would view it. Staying up – in fact finishing third – in Division Two would be considered more significant than any result against Armagh.

Next spring will be the first time in 36 years that O’Brien’s Carlow will play national league football outside the basement division. Serious stuff. No place for experimentation – whatever about fun – be that in terms of personnel or tactics, or if they and the league were treated with proper respect, new playing rules.

Instead, such rules should be trialled in a place where experimentation is routinely the order of the day.

The other day, we interviewed Paul Rouse, another columnist in these pages, for a piece running on Saturday on his new book The Hurlers as well as his interesting and hardly-linear path to becoming one of the country’s most preeminent sports historians. It wasn’t a career goal back when he was an undergraduate, let alone sitting his Leaving Cert; like a lot of other people who studied history in college, he had little idea what he’d spend his working life at. But rather than viewing such uncertainty as an affliction, he viewed it as a privilege.

“I loved college, I loved the freedom of it.” And not because he was away from the watchful eye of mommy and daddy back in Tullamore.

I loved the freedom of not having to do something. The freedom if I wanted to read a book, I could read a book.

Ideally, third level is a place where you can learn a bit more about what you don’t want to be and do as well as what you can do and want to be. And some GAA clubs have tapped into that approach to a rounder education.

A few years ago, Ciarán Kilkenny fondly spoke about the joys and challenges of being entrusted with coaching the St Patrick’s College football team while still being a student there himself. Before one game, the team bus couldn’t get under a bridge, so it was left to Kilkenny to calculate that the best thing was for everyone to walk the half-mile down the road to the venue, with Kilkenny hauling a bag of a dozen footballs over his shoulder.

Shortly after Kilkenny recalled that life experience, I interviewed another alumni of that teacher training college. Paudie O’Neill, the hurling development committee chairman at the time and a selector to the Tipperary hurling team during Eamon O’Shea’s tenure as manager, was heartened by how the Dublin footballer was carrying on a tradition in the college of moulding future leaders in life and the GAA.

Something similar is happening with third-level GAA, he finds.

It’s losing sight of its real and bigger purpose. Big-name outside coaches are being brought in to increase a college’s chances of winning the Fitzgibbon.

The whole idea of personal development seems to have gone out the window.

Back when O’Neill was a student at St Pat’s Training College in Drumcondra, the college registrar, the late and loved Stiofán Ó hAnnracháin, established the tradition of emboldening the students to run the college teams themselves. From that, Ger Loughnane and Brian Cody captained and thus coached the college hurling team. So did O’Neill and Pat Daly, the GAA’s Head of Games and a member of the rules committee that proposed these new rules. Disappointingly for O’Neill though, such an ethos wasn’t pervasive throughout third-level GAA. Big-name outside coaches were being brought into increase a college’s chances of winning silverware. A bigger picture and purpose was being lost. “The whole idea of personal development seems to have gone out the window.”

Third-level GAA has endured some stick over the years. Of being overly-disruptive to inter-county squads in the early spring. Of being overly-competitive, giving scholarships to inter-county stars who barely darken a lecture hall, of aping the American NCAA system and thinking UCD v DCU or LIT v UL is Kentucky v Kansas or Notre Dame v Alabama.

But while at times colleges have undoubtedly lost some perspective, the contribution and potential of colleges GAA also has to be recognised. Much of the best sports science and coaching practice was first trialled and championed in the aforementioned colleges before they became en vogue in the county game.

Studies are now routinely carried out with financial backing as well as interest from the GAA. And third-level GAA remains considerably more egalitarian than the wider GAA, with O’Connor and Ashbourne Cup teams having similar access to facilities as Sigerson and Fitzgibbon sides.

Still, some of the ethos that O’Neill and Rouse touched upon should be conjured and tapped into more, by third-level GAA clubs themselves and the wider GAA. Like with these five experimental rules proposed by the rules committee.

The respective merits and flaws of those proposed rules have already been discussed at length – though there needs to be more. So far, the amended sin-bin proposal seems to be the one garnering most favour, though it seems to have escaped people that two of the sports it has been successful in – rugby and ladies Gaelic football – operate a stopped clock. You don’t have to be cynical to envisage teams being cynical, like feigning injury, to eat up those 10 minutes without a full complement of 15 players.

There is a considerable chance that some of the proposals won’t even get to the stage of being trialled as reality dawns that it’ll be too big a leap and too sudden a turnaround for teams to play under one set of rules next March and another set come May.

The higher education leagues would be an ideal testing ground for such rules, even the Sigerson. Many of the players are approaching county standard. They’re all students, a grouping who are meant to question old orthodoxies and engage in trial and error.

It’s not the be-all and end-all, it’s not Kansas v Kentucky or Kerry v Dublin, or Carlow v Laois in Division Three. Their peers experiment in everything else – studies and lab rats, certain substances, sex – so why not have them try out the offensive mark and this new kickout?

The new changes would seem less like the 40s if they were tried out in a spirit more like the 60s.

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