Footy and Gaelic football: Irish gnash teeth on introduction of the mark

Monday, 25 January 2010

Depending on who you listen to, it will either bring some beauty back to the game and revive a much-loved skill, or be “an unmitigated disaster” that will rob the code of its identity.

“Hands in the back!”, “deliberate!” and “30 seconds!” are all reasonably recent additions to the AFL supporter’s lexicon. But tinkering with the rules, it may surprise, is not solely the preserve of Adrian Anderson and his coterie at AFL headquarters. The administrators of Ireland’s Gaelic games have been at it for decades, too, and this year the Irish have come up with a fair dinkum little beauty.

Animosity between the Gaelic Athletic Association and the AFL is nothing new. In just the last couple of years, the sporting bodies and their supporters on opposite sides of globe have had plenty to squabble about. There was Ricky Nixon and his attempt to lure the GAA’s best young footballers Down Under with promises of sun, surf, beautiful girls and big-money deals to play professional sport. Andrew Demetriou also stirred controversy, and the Irish press, when he announced the AFL couldn’t afford to send a team to Ireland to contest the 2009 International Rules series. And then County Kerry’s star duo of Tadhg Kennelly and Tommy Walsh decided to turn their backs on the GAA and head to Australia for 2010. You can even go back a little further to Chris Johnson’s attempt to wipe out a generation of Irish footballers in a single night in 2005.

In spite of all this spite, the Irish and Australian codes share plenty of common ground. Each is a unique, indigenous game beloved in its heartland. Each is in direct competition with other sports for the best local talent in the land. Each is battling to make itself more attractive to new spectators and advertisers alike.

Now the GAA’s Football Rules Committee has decided to strengthen that commonality by trialling a new rule that is as Australian as a shrimp throwing Paul Hogan on the barbecue (although all that plastic in his face might cause him to melt, rather than cook).

For the various provincial competitions and National Leagues that act as a prelude to the All-Ireland championship, players in the middle section of the field who catch the football on the full from a goalkeeper’s kick-in will be awarded a ‘mark’. Under the trial rule, the player who takes the mark will be awarded a ‘free kick’. The referee can also allow the player to ‘play on’ if it is to their ‘advantage’. Even the language is familiar to an AFL devotee.

The Rules Committee is hoping the trial will encourage the return to Gaelic football of high fielding, or ‘fetching’ as it is known. The equivalent skill in Australia is the overhead or contested mark. Like in the AFL world, fetching is a highly regarded and fondly remembered skill. The columnist, Keith Duggan, recently wrote, if a little melodramatically, in the Irish Times that few things worry the Irish as much as the disappearance of the high catch.

“No sight could make Gaels go weak at the knees like that of a long-haired Mullins or a tanned O’Shea rising through the early autumn sky over Croke Park, timing their leap so that they could claim the ball at the apex of its flight, leaving mere mortals in their wake as they met the ground at full pace,” Duggan wrote.

But when the trial was announced in December, among a whole series of proposals for both Gaelic football and hurling, the mark was heavily criticised. Keith Duggan was among those to doubt its merit.

“Gaelic football is flawed, but at its best it is exciting,” he wrote. “The mark could rob it of that in one fell stroke. Bring the mark into Gaelic football and it ceases to be Gaelic football.”

Among Duggan’s concerns was that the mark could undo all of the good work done in recent years to speed up Gaelic football, which he describes as a “wonderfully lawless sport”. The well-respected County Tyrone coach and fervent opponent of the AFL’s influence on GAA affairs, Mickey Harte, shares Duggan’s concerns.

“I think it will ruin our game,” Harte told reporters. “[It will] make it a stop-start game, and I have absolutely no time for that at all … I think there are too many changes being foisted upon us. Why do we need these changes all the while? Why is there all this ongoing experimentation, when there’s nothing wrong with the games that we play?”

But the Rules Committee’s John Kiely says the rule will stop ‘fetchers’ from being swamped  by opponents each time they catch the football and actually help to increase the speed of play.

“Some people are shooting it down because they are under the opinion when the ball comes lár na páirce and the guy catches that the referee is going to blow the whistle and we are going to have this big hold-up in play, but the player can deliver the ball immediately if he is not brain-dead and in a good position,” Kiely told the Irish Times.

An Irish Independent columnist, Colm O’Rourke, was one of the few people to back the Rules Committee’s contention.

“Imagine [County Kerry’s] Darragh ó Sé catching a high kick-out,” O’Rourke wrote. “If he was then able to kick unimpeded, it would be gone in an instant into Gooch [Colm Cooper] or [Keiran] Donaghy. This would be much faster than the present maul which accompanies a high catch and anyway, high catching is another great skill which should be rewarded.”

The GAA’s president, Christy Cooney, pleaded with all who would listen to reserve their judgments until the rules had been given a chance to “bed-in”. It seems few were listening. The first matches using the trial rules were played over the last two weekends. The opinions started flowing in immediately. The verdict was confusion.

The Irish Independent quoted several coaches who saw the rule interpreted in a variety of ways in different matches. Most of the confusion centred on whether it was up to the player or the referee to decide if the fetcher had the ‘advantage’ and could ‘play on’.

County Dublin’s manager, Pat Gilroy, was not impressed with what he saw.

“It’s only going to make you more determined not to let people catch the ball with the mark, as you’re giving away a free if a catch is made,” he told the Independent. “You might even get more fouling because you’re giving away a free anyway.”

An Irish Times reporter opined that the effect of the ‘mark’ had been negligible and even tracked down a coach in favour of the change. County Tipperary’s John Evans told the newspaper he is “positive about the whole thing”.

“To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive about the mark, and how it would work, but I’m actually sold on it,” Evans said. “I’d say between the two games we had about 10 marks, in total. I think it might actually open up play a bit more around the middle of the field, and that can only be a good thing.”

A decision on whether the mark will be introduced for this year’s All-Ireland championship will be made at the GAA Congress in April.

Comments

  1. pauldaffey says:

    Interesting, Peter.

    Irish sports figures, like most sports figures, are resistant to change, but this is actually an enormous one. In AFL terms, it’s like outlawing the tackle in the backline or taking away behinds.

    I reckon it’s a great thing, though. One of my enduring memories of watching Gaelic football a decade ago is the sight of Kildare’s Dermot Early float through the air to take a high ball. I thought at the time it was a great shame that he wasn’t rewarded for his aerial feats.

    I noticed from your reports in 2009 that Early is still playing for Kildare. It would be instructive to hear what he thinks of the change.

  2. Great article, Peter!

    I’ll admit that I have little more than basic understanding of Gaelic (We had to learn the rules and how to play it for Year 9 PE), and the closest I’ve ever come to seeing an actual game is International Rules. I do recall it being a lot of fun and really fast paced, though.

    Interesting that Paul should put into context how huge a deal it is – please keep us posted on any new developments, my interest has really been piqued!

    Is there any way of watching Gaelic matches from Australia? e.g. Fox Sports/OneHD?

  3. Peter Lenaghan says:

    Daff:
    Yes, Dermot Early is still running around in the midfield for Kildare and he remains a magnificent footballer.
    He spoke to the Irish Independent in December when the mark trial was announced and here’s some of what he said.

    “It’s a good rule. It promotes the skill of fielding and that’s something that a lot of people have feel has died away.
    “Everyone wants to see the skills. You see a corner-forward turning and kicking it over with the right foot and then doing it again with the left foot, that’s a skill and that’s what the game is all about.
    “If it promotes a skill then it is a positive move,” added Earley after receiving the 2009 Halifax GPA Fair Play award for football.
    “It’s so crowded these days around the middle that it can be hard to catch a ball. Now opposition teams will have to maybe change the way they swarm because, if you come down with the ball, there might be a few of your team-mates free.”

  4. pauldaffey says:

    Thanks Peter.

    It’s not a surprise that he’s all for it.

  5. Peter Flynn says:

    Susie,

    I reckon you can view GAA action on Setanta Sports. You have to pay extra.

  6. Thanks Peter,

    I’ll check it out :-)

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