Belfast Telegraph

GAA must tackle ambiguous rules to avoid ugly scenes

By Declan Bogue

We need to talk about Sunday. Yes, the Athletic Grounds. No, it wasn't pretty.

As a body, the GAA are perhaps required to defend the behaviour of their players more than most sporting organisations.

Understandably, they can find this process tiresome.

If they were to ask their own membership, they would be emboldened by the feeling that they are under siege far too much.

A good example came at half time at the Athletic Grounds when a number of men were discussing the incident in the eighth minute. One man noted that there wasn't much to it, although he remarked: "It gives the newspapers something to talk about."

Across 19 weekend games in the McKenna, O'Byrne and McGrath Cups, along with the FBD league, this was the only incident of its kind.

As the 8,463 crowd on Sunday was the biggest sporting attendance - bar Ulster's trip to Leinster at the RDS - over the weekend, the GAA would have a case to say that what is popular is there to be shot down.

Other sports have their dark sides too. Ice hockey is unashamed in their attachment to sudden outbreaks of violence in a sport that is aggressively marketed towards youngsters, yet the same calls for inquests are strangely absent after the Belfast Giants stand toe to toe with rivals.

However, it is well known that top-ranking GAA officials have grown weary of such scenes. They do not - as suggested by one county manager last year - have the power to inflict suspensions arising from such incidents, but they do have influence among the rule-makers.

The truth is, the GAA could start a process to end the practice of grappling and wrestling by adopting a two-pronged approach. They might begin with studying aggression in rugby.

The vast majority of the time it is channelled into hits around the contact zone. By and large, you don't see a rugby player dragging another away from the play. That is a conditioned state they have reached in their game which pays a great deal of respect to match officials.

Frustration with referees and venting that verbally is entirely futile, but it is understandable in the light of the ambiguity that exists with the tackle in Gaelic football.

What referees understand to be fair is constantly evolving, a point made succinctly by Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney when he said: "For years, Tyrone perfected getting in around the ball and putting in loads of tackles. And now it's a free kick. There is no such free for having loads of men around even though there's no such rule when men are tackling the ball with an open hand."

Whether you agree with this or not, there is a need to recap what the tackle actually involves.

Educating their masses is actually something the GAA does rather well. When it came to rolling out the black card for example, they performed an admirable job in spreading the message of what a black card offence entailed.

It was laid out clearly on matchday programmes throughout the year, as well as explained on their website.

There is nothing to stop a similar education process on a refined definition of the tackle.

Some would alter the tackle, and import the tackle as it is in rugby.

In the wake of Sean Cavanagh's infamous All-Ireland quarter-final tackle on Conor McManus in 2013, both former Kerry and Munster Chairman Sean Walsh and Armagh's Ciaran McKeever made cases for its inclusion in Gaelic football.

What we have now is a scenario that Cavanagh would be dismissed for the rest of the game, rather than being rewarded for having prevented a possible goal. To prevent Gaelic football becoming an arms race of size and bulk, this cannot be allowed to happen.

If players knew exactly where the line was drawn between a foul and a legitimate tackle, then a level of simmering frustration would slowly ebb away from the game.

In this new culture, random outbreaks of bone-headed machismo would also be viewed as entirely unacceptable. Want to grab hold of an opponent and throw him to the ground? Fine, but you will be red-carded.

Want to grab hold of an opponent's shirt and rough him up a bit? Again, no problems, as long as it is rewarded with a card of scarlet hue.

Next month, GAA Congress takes place in Cavan over the weekend of February 27 and 28, with the inauguration of new President, Aogan O'Fearghail.

Central Council have the power to bring such proposals onto the Clár for debate. It might only be for debate, but it might also begin a softening-up process that could lead to eventual implementation.

Pass them, and they might just do themselves a massive favour.

They certainly wouldn't have to fight so many rearguard actions anyway.

Belfast Telegraph

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