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Harbinson runs the rule over 'farcical' changes

 

By Declan Bogue

Antrim football manager Lenny Harbinson has joined the many dissenters to the new rules of Gaelic football coming into force for the start of the pre-season tournaments and National league, declaring the majority of them 'farcical.'

Saturday's meeting of Central Council approved five rule changes and while there has been cautious welcoming of a sin-bin punishment for black cards rather than a straight player swap, other rules changes have been heavily criticised, including one that limits consecutive hand passes to three.

"They have taken a sledgehammer to break a nut," says Harbinson, who is debating now on whether tonight's challenge match arranged against Queen's will be played under the new rules which will be enforced for the Dr McKenna Cup.

Despite expressing his wonderment on why exactly the kick-out needs to be advanced seven yards up the field, Harbinson has exposed the crucial weakness with the 'offensive mark', which in practise gives an attacker inside the opposition 45-metre line a free kick providing they caught a ball delivered from a minimum of 20 metres away and outside the line.

"We are moving more towards the Aussie Rules game. It is a farce," stated the former All-Ireland club winning manager.

"The challenge is, how can a referee who is refereeing a game in Ballygobackwards, who is on his own on a Wednesday night with the pitch not marked and no help around him…

"It makes it stop-start instead of free-flowing. So say you were coming to the 45-metre line and you look up and your full-forward is being marked, you could look to your left or right and float a 20-metre punt, that man can then catch it, stop the game and reset the play."

He continued: "The biggest area which is getting the most attention is the three hand pass rule.

"Immediately when I read that, I thought of how it works in practise. What is going on in the modern game? It is all about retaining the ball. Not giving the ball away cheaply and particularly when you get into the final third with teams filtering men back to set up their defence, the good teams were able to move defences around by the use of the hand pass.

"That worked successfully and if you look at the game now, I think the average score this season was around 22, 23 points from the likes of the Dublin's and Tyrone's.

"So the packed defence is not the issue it was years ago. Teams have learned how to adapt and get around it by using basketball tactics of breaking lines and getting in behind the defensive movement."

Like many managers, Harbinson sees more faults than benefits with such a drastic change in policy. Many of the scores rated among the best ever would be ruled out under the new rules, including Ger Farragher's classic goal for Corofin in this year's All-Ireland club final against Nemo Rangers.

"Look at how a hand pass movement created a goal, it was a fantastic goal," explained Harbinson.

"It had team movement, cutting through the defence, good ball movement and a great finish at the end of it. A great team goal using skilful elements of the game.

"One of the things I will be looking at as a coach is saying to our players, if you are on the opposition's 45-metre line and you have three hand passes, well obviously on the next pass you have to kick the ball, so I would drop the ball on the ground and kick a wee pass to the man nearest to you, two or three yards away, and start the cycle again."

Harbinson also believes that despite the utterances to the contrary, the rank and file officials are far from delighted that more duties are placed in their hands.

"My understanding is that the referees were not happy," explained the St Gall's man.

"Publicly, yes they might say they can. But the sin bin? Again in Ballygobackwards, where the referee is on his own and gives a black card, he has to keep the time on that one. He sends another man off another couple of minutes later he has two to keep track of along with the normal time, and the time added on?

"We are adding more rules and complexity into the game for the club referee."

If Antrim happen to be paired against one of the county teams seeking a Dr McKenna Cup fixture pre-Christmas to allow for team holidays, then they have around eight sessions to prepare for the new rules.

"We are playing a match tonight against Queen's, so do we play this game under the new rules?" asked Harbinson.

"We have a number of friendlies fixed for the following week so you are wondering now how you prepare players.

"But from now on in training, my management team are already sitting down and wondering how we look at the rules from a positive and a negative point of view, how can we exploit these new rules?"

One rule he was happy with was the black card resulting in a 10-minute spell for the offender in a 'sin-bin.'

"I do see it as being a positive and I hope it is one rule that remains in place as it can stop the real cynicism that happens in the last minutes of a tight game, where the likes of the Dublin players held onto the Mayo players for the last kick-out of the 2017 All-Ireland final.

"If that happens now and the referee was encouraged to issue black cards, Dublin could have been down two or three players."

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