Takeaways from the opening night of Gaelic football’s experimental rule changes

File photo of Laois defender Stephen Attride.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Kevin O’Brien reports from O’Moore Park

THERE WAS A slight sense of anti-climax in Portlaoise last night as one of the most dramatic rule-change packages in the history of Gaelic football had a low-key start in the opening round O’Byrne Cup clash between Laois and Meath.

As the 2019 season got underway on a miserable December evening, the Royals ran out comfortable 14-point winners and, by and large, the five experimental rules had the desired effect in improving the game as a spectacle.

The five proposed rule change are:
1. Handpass: Limit to three successive handpasses, after which the ball must be kicked.
2. Sideline kicks: Sidelines except those inside the opposition’s 20m line, must go forward.
3. Advanced mark: A player can call a mark if they make a clean catch inside the 45m line from a kickpass taken by an attacking player on or beyond the opposing team’s 45. The ball must travel a minimum of 20 metres and can’t touch the ground.
4. Sin-bin: The current black card sanction is replaced by ten minutes in the sin-bin.
5. Kick-outs: All kick-outs must be taken from the 20m line and cannot go backwards.

The restriction of three consecutive handpasses had a major impact on how often the ball was kicked. Both Meath and Laois put far more emphasis on the kick pass all over the field and the game benefited as a result.

There were far more contested possessions and plenty of turnovers from either team, with both counties more willing to move the ball into the full-forward line quickly and early by foot. On first viewing, it appears corner-forwards will no longer be forced to live off scraps and may get a steady supply of possession from deep.

The most noticeable difference during the game was how the footpass became the first option for most players, rather than giving off the simple handpass. It also limited the amount of lateral handpassing over and back in front of a defensive screen, with the team in possession more eager to kick an early ball into the full-forward line. 

On just four occasions did the referee blow for four handpasses – twice for Laois in the opening half and twice for Meath in the second. Both of Laois’s transgressions came at midfield but the Royals were denied two point-scoring opportunities.

On both occasions, a Meath player was sent into a scoreable position with a first pass when the play was called back. Andy McEntee suggested after the game that fatigue may have been a factor in those late errors. 

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Both sides also left more bodies on the half-forward line when they defended, which allowed them to transfer the ball quickly from attack to defence by foot.

Interestingly, a member of the Laois backroom team counted the handpasses out loud on the sideline for the benefit of their players, while McEntee left his players up to their own devices. 

On the negative side, players sometimes availed of sloppy close-range foot passes when three handpasses were already taken. Neither team ran the ball down the middle due to the risk of running out of handpasses, but that took little away from the game as a spectacle.

Of the rest of the experimental rules, the kick-outs from the 20m line saw the majority of restarts being contested in midfield. On some occasions, the respective goalkeepers were able to get short kick-outs away, but most were long 50/50 balls t0 the middle.

Neither Meath nor Laois claimed an advanced mark but in truth, neither side tried it too often. A couple of Meath defenders claimed marks from high balls inside but the wet conditions made making clean catches difficult.

Both teams were still happy to give kickpasses inside that bounced in front of the recipient. With only a couple of weeks of training with the new rules under the belts, it’s likely sides will try to make better use of the advanced mark over the coming games.

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Of the other proposed rule changes, it’s still debatable whether the new sideline rule will benefit the game, while the sin-bin was not required on the night. 

General view of O’Moore Park.

Source: Cathal Noonan

Referee Fintan Pierce, from the Raheen club in Offaly, is only in his mid-20s but is considered locally to have a bright future ahead of him as the man in the middle. His rise through the ranks has been quick – he only managed his first Offaly SFC final in October – but Pierce had little trouble applying the new rules in O’Moore Park despite difficult weather conditions.

Meath boss McEntee made some relevant points after the game, suggesting a potential tweak to the handpass rule that may work.

“The three hand-pass rule, you know, I could live with that,” he said. “The area of the pitch where it’s difficult is in close to goals where there’s a crowded defence.

How do you beat that only with quick hands, two or three little short hand-passes and all of a sudden (under new rules) you’re in trouble because there’s so many players back there. In a way, it would almost encourage more defenders back there.

“If I was to tweak it I’d restrict to between the two 50s (45m lines). Because I think inside when you get closer to goal, bodies (are) there and it’s going to lead to a lot of rucks and scrums.

“You saw a certain amount of those there tonight,” he continued. “Where fellas are trying to kick a five-yard footpass, it’s going to lead to a lot of turnovers.”

All in all, the initial backlash to the rule changes may have been a little premature. While the handpass limit rules out a goal like Corofin’s brilliant move in this year’s All-Ireland club final, it also removes the sort of back-and-forth handpassing moves outside the 45m line that puts spectators to sleep.

It may be a price worth paying for the overall betterment of the game.

A week before the Allianz Football League begins on 26 January, Central Council must decide whether to extend the experimental rules trial into the league campaign.

There’s plenty of football to be played between now and then and they might need further tweaks, but on first viewing, the rule changes have the potential to greatly improve football.

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