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Jack Anderson: What type of game does GAA want Gaelic football to evolve into?

The Allianz Leagues in both hurling and football appear to have started well. The blueprint of regular, competitive games in a condensed scheduled and held in the early evenings at provincial venues is exactly what the football championship needs.

Flipping the league and championship is one of the proposals made in the GAA’s fixtures review committee. It’s a welcome suggestion, although the slightly odd play-off system that accompanies it, and which appears to give the county finishing top of Division 4 a better chance of winning the Sam Maguire than half the teams in Division 1, is a reminder of the saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.

To be fair to those involved, they have said that the playoff element is up for debate.

Two issues that also remain open to debate come from another GAA committee on its playing rules: the first is the AFL-style mark in football; the second, a black card and sin bin for hurling.

The AFL mark has been around since the very first set of Aussie rules were codified in 1859. The rule as written 161 years ago said: “A player catching the ball directly from a kick by a foot to call ‘mark’ and take a free kick. No opponent to come inside the spot where the mark was taken.” That rule is largely the same as that which applies today in AFL with the added component that the ball must travel at least 15 meters. In contrast to the AFL’s clarity, the equivalent in Gaelic Football, currently being trialled, has been accompanied by a very prescriptive set of guidelines which even had to be revised in the days before the start of the league.

If you are explaining, you’re losing is both a rule in politics and a maxim of the rule-maker in sport.

The mark as a means of possession is of vital importance in Aussie Rules and works in balance with the rugby-like tackle rule which enables AFL players to strip another of possession much more easily than in Gaelic football. Moreover, with modern coaching, the mark has seen Aussie Rules become much more of a playbook, stop-start type game. Irish recruits to the AFL are always amazed at the number of plays they must learn in advance of games.

Gaelic football, probably to a dissipating degree, remains the more spontaneous game. In addition, it’s already very difficult to strip a forward of possession. About as many people in Ireland have executed the perfect Gaelic football tackle as have finished Ulysses.

While the mark in Gaelic football has yet to convince, can the same can be said of the GAA’s playing rules committee? We hear a lot about the research that goes into every suggested rule change, but we hear nothing about what type of game the committee wants Gaelic football to evolve into. Is it an AFL-style catch and kick or a more dynamic possession-based game? The suggestions made in good faith by the committee will likely be seen as piecemeal and unnecessarily interventionist in the continuing absence of a broader vision of the game.

It’s also slightly ironic that the latest flurry of rule changes took place against the backdrop of fears that defensive football would affect attendance. The GAA’s Financial Report for 2018 did show that average Championship attendances decreased by 18% and gate receipts were down by 14%. Previews for 2019 suggest that gate receipts are on the up again boosted by the replayed All-Ireland football final — games which were the antithesis of defensive football.

Maybe the game of Gaelic football — when played in the right spirit between evenly matched teams and with a referee that consistently implements the current rules — is just fine as it is?

Rule-making is not easy. The AFL tried last year to introduce changes to “decongest” their game but scoring averages remain stubbornly low.

One simple rule that works well in AFL and could easily by adapted in GAA at all levels is the 50-metre penalty, which permits the referee to move the ball that distance for cynical play. The rule can transform a time-wasting tackle by a forward in one half of the field into a scoring opportunity in the other.

The GAA’s rules committee has recently turned its attention to cynical play in hurling with the mild suggestion that a sin bin should be considered. As if offering a cushion to a Spartan, the proposition has been met with disdain by the hurling community.

There is of course cynical play in hurling. I always think that AFL scouts are looking at the wrong code for talent because even the average corner back in hurling can execute a perfect AFL-like tackle.

The weakness in the proposal is that while there may be evidence that cynical play is increasing in hurling, there is no evidence yet as to whether the black card/sin bin might be the most effective and proportionate sanction.

Pending a trial of the sin bin in hurling, any move to introduce the black card for this year’s hurling championship at this year’s GAA Congress should be rejected.

Congress is too unwieldy and often too uninterested a body to discuss rule changes – the debate on the advance mark in football took less than 10 minutes.

Moreover, the problem with the GAA’s rule book is that once a rule is adopted it tends to linger there and, a bit like the old soldier on the junior b team, it’s often harder to get them off the team, that on it.

As for the mark in football, ironically the best way to get rid of it might be to see it rigidly enforced by referees for the rest of the league.

As Abraham Lincoln said: “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.”

Prof Jack Anderson is Director of Studies, Sports Law at Melbourne Law School