GAA: A different ball game


Another year and a fresh set of experimental rules has Jack Logan pondering whether Gaelic football deserves to be tinkered with so often

As has become customary in recent times, this year’s National Football League features a number of new rules, some of which may never see the light of summer when the All-Ireland Championship begins in May.

The square ball rule has been reformed, bouncing the ball has been redefined, Australian Football style marks are now awarded for clean catching in the middle of the park, and tackling has been reassessed, among other changes.

The problem with the 2010 batch of rules is not necessarily the rules themselves but the amount of sudden change, and the way these fiats are to be interpreted by referees. And so, some inter-county managers have found themselves in recent weeks spouting out the annual observation: If there is doubt as to how a rule should be interpreted, then surely there is doubt as to the clarity of the rulebook itself.

The new regulation in relation to a form of tackling is a case in point. The rule as it stood since 1975 was a ‘side-to-side charge’; this has now been amended to a ‘shoulder-to-shoulder charge’. The vagueness of the original rule has not been addressed, but rather its potential for confusion increased.

The shoulder is not the side, and one man’s shoulder does not always correspond with another man’s shoulder. Consequently, many teams have questioned the consistency of the rule’s interpretation by referees so far this year. The Kildare manager, Kieran McGeeney, speaking in the wake of his side’s win over Westmeath, stressed the need for a stricter definition.

“You couldn’t have the likes of Darragh Ó Sé hitting the likes of Jason Sherlock. It just isn’t allowed. Even though it is within the rules. It just looks unsafe. That’s like asking Paul O’Connell not to tackle Ronan O’Gara. It doesn’t make any sort of sense but that is just what we have.”

The annual rule trial period has consequences for the calibre of competition too. Supporters, commentators and speculators can talk and talk all they want about the perceived lack of respect some managers and counties show to the league, focusing instead on the Championship and simply using the spring competition as an extension of the training ground, but ultimately this lack of respect goes beyond the participants.

Rule 6.35 in the GAA’s Official Guide allows for annual experimentation: “Playing Rule changes recommended by Central Council may be experimented with in national and County Leagues of the year prior to a Congress at which motions for revision of Playing Rules are tabled.”

Congress will be afforded the opportunity to vote on the new rules in April. A two-thirds majority will be necessary in order to carry any new rule and each will be considered separately.

Why, then, should managers be expected to treat the League as seriously as the Championship, which is considered sacrosanct by the Official Guide? For all intents and purposes, it can be a completely different ball game.