What impact will ‘the mark’ have on the GAA?
The GAA’s central council have announced that ‘the mark’ will be introduced from January 1st 2017 on a pilot basis, which heralds the dawn of a new era for the association, but will it end up the way of the black card or will it have a positive impact on the game?
Inspired by the AFL in Australia, it is hoped that the mark will see the return of high fielding, which is on the verge of distinction in the modern game. Winning the ball cleanly in the middle of the field in recent years hasn’t been much of an advantage, as a swarm of players descend on the catcher, as he tries in vain to get through a sea of opponents. The new rule would see any player catching the ball beyond the 45 metre line given possession and ultimately a free-kick or if he so wishes, the option to run on with the ball.
This decision by the GAA is see as a step forward by many, while others believe that it is a total ‘cop-out.’ As an ardent GAA fan, one of the major problems of today’s game is the over emphasis on defence, which has resulted in club teams around the country adopting similar approaches to Mickey Harte and Jim McGuinness. The problem for club teams however, is that they are unable to transition defence to attack, like Donegal and Tyrone do. So average teams are now causing havoc by playing this ultra-defensive tactic, which in a sense, is ruining the game.
Jim McGuinness mastered the art of the blanket defence and swift counter attacking plan, but he was reliant on the likes of Mark McHugh, Frank McGlynn and Karl Lacey to bomb forward at break neck speed to really hurry teams. With an average team, you have the mass defence and then nowhere to go, as teams pass laterally until they eventually lose possession.
The GAA have been under pressure to do something about this and their answer seems to be the mark. One problem, which was identified by one of the GAA’s harshest critics. Joe Brolly, is that teams will simply let the opposition catch the ball in the middle of the field, as they put in place their blanket defence and the catcher will have no one to hit with the free and will end up going backwards. It is easy to envisage such a scenario, especially in Ulster, where blanket defences are the norm.
A more radical approach would have been to limit the number of players allowed in each team’s defensive half. For example, if a team were only allowed eleven players in their own half at any time, they would be forced to play with at least four forwards, which might help to make the game more attacking.
People might argue that this would be too hard to implement, but another big change I would propose would be the introduction of two referees to the game of Gaelic football. We have an abundance of officials at each game, between linesmen, umpires and side-line officials, why not use one of them as a second ref? Basketball, which has quite a strong connection with the world of GAA employs two referees, one for each half of the court and this works extremely well. Imagine if there was a referee in the other half of the field when Michael Murphy is being hauled to the ground with the ball eighty yards away and a free was awarded each time. Surely this would put an end to the off the ball antics of some of our more distinguished full backs and corner backs.
It is ironic that Joe Brolly is the harshest critic of this measure, when it was his tirade against Sean Kavanagh that resulted in the last rule change, the introduction of the black card, which can only be described as an absolute farce. Again, this was the GAA trying to show that they were tackling the issues within the game, when in fact all that they did was add further ambiguity to the issue of fouling. Not a championship weekend went by in 2016 when the fans were not discussing the issue of black cards, whether one should have been given or not, with every referee interpreting the rules differently. The introduction of a second official would also alleviate the burden on referees, who try their best to adapt to a game where they need eyes on the back of their head.
And this is an issue for the GAA, the evolution of the game in such a short space of time and their inability to adapt as an organisation. The IRFU are having similar problems, dealing with a game that has changed dramatically in a short space of time. GAA teams, both county and club are now fitter, stronger and heavier than they ever were before. The game is faster, the tackles are harder and although the nostalgic among us will hark back to the good old days, there is no comparing the athleticism of today’s stars, with that of yesteryear.
The speed at which the game has changed is in stark contrast to the unwillingness of the GAA to change. The men and women at the head of our game are more than willing to bring change when it means more money in their pockets, i.e. the ‘Sky’ deal, but when it comes to changing the game itself, ‘tradition’ is word that they are fond of referring to, as they try to excuse themselves of taking action.
The mark will come in on the 1st of January and I have a feeling that its impact will be negligible, as Cluxton et al will continue their short kick-outs to ensure that they keep the ball, in a game where possession is king.