FIVE minutes into the first-half of the Dublin-Kerry game, in Croke Park, on Saturday evening, Dublin forward, Conor McHugh, took the first advanced mark of the match.
It was surprising that it took so long, but it was just as surprising that it took as long again for the next one to happen.
Over the 70-plus minutes, just three advanced marks were claimed, both of which yielded key late scores. In the Donegal-Mayo game, in Ballybofey, at the same time, there was just one advanced mark.
The teams haven’t really had time to practise, but, even when teams were trying to secure an advanced mark, the timing of their kicks, and the forwards’ runs, were too often off line to nail them.
That will change in time, as teams become more used to the new rule, but, over the weekend, there was nothing like the anticipated chaos.
When the national media was briefed, last Thursday, on the final clarifications and interpretations to the new playing rules, they were shown nine slides to try and clear up any confusion about the exact understanding of the rules, which were voted in at Special Congress last October.
Referees were only updated at the beginning of last week, before the same information was disseminated to counties.
Two of the four information slides — the options for players after taking the mark, and infractions relating to the mark — contained 11 bullet points, which ran to 225 words.
It’s never easy for players, coaches, and managers to take in so much detail in such a short space of time, but the sheer volume, just days before the beginning of the National League, was even more ridiculous, considering that the advanced mark hadn’t really been stress-tested, or fully put into practice.
The details on the slides show the distinctions between the advanced mark that was in place during last year’s league and the advanced mark in its current form.
Some of the alterations include allowing the player 15 seconds — instead of five — to take the kick, while opponents need to be at least 13 metres away, as opposed to 10. If a player decides to play on, he can’t be challenged during the time it requires to take four steps or until he plays the ball.
It was also confirmed that the advantage rule cannot be used in conjunction with the advanced mark. So, if a player who has been awarded a mark chooses to play on, but is immediately fouled, or has passed the ball on to a team-mate, the referee must call back the play for the free.
It was confusing reading it on paper, never mind for players trying to process that information, and for coaches trying to coach it. And, worse again, for referees trying to officiate that potential chaos, with so little time and so little experience of dealing with so many new tweaks for one rule.
David Gough, who refereed last year’s drawn All-Ireland final, recently expressed reservations about the implementation of the new rule. He had one key point: how can referees gauge the distance of 20 metres from different areas of a pitch, where neither the position of the kick, nor the intended target, are from lines marked on the ground?
If top-class referees will struggle, what will happen at club level? Whatever happened at inter-county level at the weekend, it looks like a recipe for chaos in the club game.
This time last year, teams could take or leave the advanced mark, because they were only being trialled during the league. A number of teams chose to ignore it, because they wouldn’t be in place for the championship, but no team can afford to do so now, because the rules are here to stay.
Furthermore, teams in Divisions 2 and 3 will really need to be up to speed on the rule, because the stakes have never been greater for the 16 teams in those divisions.
It would be wholly unfair if some team’s season hinges on unfamiliarity, or on a decision that a referee missed because there are so many grey areas to that rule.
To make it more complicated again, along with the advanced mark, and the kick-out mark (which players are at least well-accustomed to), there is also a defensive mark, which a defender can take from a long ball played in.
Is that another step towards turning Gaelic football into another form of Aussie Rules? If that’s what does happen, it will be harder again to accept, because the advanced mark does not exclusively reward high fielding: a catch made between a player’s legs is the equivalent of one above the head.
It’s difficult to assess, just yet, the impact the advanced mark will have on the game, because there was just an average of two advanced marks per game over the weekend. The highest dividend were the four scores Laois got from marks in their draw against Roscommon.
That showed the potential of the advanced mark, but the full extent of the potential chaos was also clearly bubbling under the surface; in a couple of games, marks were claimed and signalled by the player, but were missed by the referee.
And when that happens in a big game, and the score is subsequently missed, the chorus against the new rule will only get louder.
In the Kerry and Dublin game, just three advanced marks were claimed. In the Donegal-Mayo game, there was one advanced mark