Happy Monday everyone! It may still be January but there’s a reason to be cheerful: we’re on the cusp of another GAA football season. The start of the Allianz Leagues (aka “NFL”, or for the traditionalists out there, “the national league”) is just five days away…
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NEED TO KNOW
No league trial for proposed handpass rule
The controversial three consecutive handpass rule proposed by the Standing Committee on Playing Rules will not be trialled during the 2019 NFL season, following a Central Committee meeting on Saturday. It was defeated on a vote of 25-23 (where’s the justice for the 48% who voted remain?). Other new rules, including kickout restrictions, a sin bin, forward-only sideline kicks and an offensive mark have made the cut (for the league only in 2019, not Championship), but the handpass rule has now been consigned to the history books, after its shortlived existence during the preseason competitions (in a rather preposterous turn of events, it was decided not to even be used in either the FBD League or McKenna Cup final this past weekend).
This was not a surprise. The proposed handpass restriction took an absolute battering in the media in recent weeks, which no doubt contributed heavily to its eventual rejection. The criticism – based on a handful of of meaningless preseason games – was particularly full-on, with a host of high-profile intercounty managers queuing up to question what on earth it was actually designed to achieve. Some coaches admitted to not even coaching the rules in training (we’re looking at you, Declan Bonner!). Leading to this level of saltiness was probably the fact managers felt they weren’t consulted properly (read: by anything other than email – heaven forbid) during the process.
Players themselves – led by the GPA – were also vehemently against the handpass changes and spectators weren’t positive either, if the national discourse, played out on Twitter, was an accurate indication. It’s primarily because, well… because us football people are a strange breed. We know our sport is difficult to watch at times; that it is fundamentally broken. But we want it kept that way! A restrictive handpass rule, with its fancy arithmetic, just upset the natural order of things. Nobody seemed capable of comprehending it. Normally-smart coaches had no idea how to approach it (Mickey Harte said it caused “frustration, difficulty and mayhem”) and previously-considered-top referees turned into a darkly-clad farce (when all that was required to police the rule was a half-decent whistle and an attention span). Ard Comhairle to the rescue.
Or was it all just a GAA version of Project Fear? David Hassan and his rules committee will certainly view it that way – short-term interests bulldozing a long-term solution. Although there will still be huge interest in the rule changes that were agreed, the one that was rejected will come as a disappointment to said committee and their quest to restore football to something a little more pleasing on the eyes. They put thorough research into the development of each proposal and would have expected the handpass rule to at least be trialled throughout the length of a prominent competition, such as the NFL.
Beast from the East
The 2019 running of the Allianz Leagues throws-in next Saturday night, but with the dawning of a new GAA season there has to be some danger of Dublin-fatigue setting in among football fans around the country – such has been their dominance this decade.
Surely that fatigue is tempered by the fact the Dubs are aiming for an unprecedented five successive All Ireland titles? It is the biggest footballing storyline of 2019 and make no mistake, it adds a pressure to Jim Gavin’s squad they haven’t previously experienced. That pressure will not surface during the NFL, but if even the slightest crack appears in the big sky blue machine during the spring, expect it to be blown into a veritable canyon. That’s what provides the fascination to Dublin’s NFL campaign: the hint of a chink in their armour, and the media reaction to it.
In a generally strong Division One (that contains seven out of last summer’s Super 8s participants), Dublin’s biggest tests will come against Monaghan in Clones (next Sunday) and Galway, who have a puncher’s chance the following week. Tyrone will hope to put last September’s All Ireland Final defeat behind them when they travel to Croke Park on St. Patrick’s weekend. The Red Hands might provide the biggest challenge to Dublin’s NFL crown, considering James Horan’s Mayo are likely to be in experimentation mode ahead of a summer onslaught, while new Kerry manager Peter Keane has already claimed he won’t be worrying too much about what happens during the spring, and an injury-ravaged squad doesn’t help. Cavan and Roscommon are likely to make up the relegation pairing, but there’s going to be a surprise somewhere, right?
But wait, the GAA have hiked ticket prices?
Yes, it would all be worth watching live if the GAA hadn’t decided to increase admission prices to NFL Division One and Two games (for stand tickets) by €5.
This means it will cost €20 to sit and watch an NFL game this year (€17 if you purchase the ticket before midnight on the day of the game, but it’s barely worth the hassle). Championship prices have also gone up, with All Ireland Final tickets now due to cost €90 and qualifier rounds 1, 2 and 3 hiked to €20.
After executing a number of own goals in 2018, it beggars belief that the GAA would implement a measure to put fans off the sport even further. The Ulster SFC increased its ticket prices last year (adding admissions for U16s into the bargain) and saw attendances drop off markedly. Has the GAA never heard of the phrase ‘read the room’? Their only justification is that they will “make a firm commitment to distribute all additional revenue back out into the Association at club and county level.” My guess is that that additional revenue may not amount to much.
Preseason competitions conclude on time
Amazingly, the 2019(/2018) preseason competitions managed to finish on time this year – without the need to clog up the spring schedule further. This was in equal parts due to their starting in early December and the mild winter we’ve had so far, reducing the need for postponements. Yesterday saw their conclusion, with a win for Roscommon over Galway to retain the Connacht League adding to Tyrone winning the McKenna Cup (in a feisty battle with neighbours Armagh that provided surprisingly satisfying Saturday night viewing), Clare capturing the McGrath Cup and an O’Byrne Cup title for Westmeath against a plucky Dublin Thirds outfit last Friday night.
You read that correctly. Dublin’s third string (containing none of their 30-man SFC squad) came close to winning a provincial tournament against a group of counties playing reasonably full-strength teams. Forget the fact they didn’t win it; that they are even capable of displaying this level of depth shows how far Dublin are ahead of the pack right now. Their top stars were off on a winter holiday in the Bahamas recently, recharging ahead of a potentially historic season, while everyone else trudged through midweek games in January that didn’t finish til nearly 10pm. Even Dublin manager Jim Gavin doesn’t engage at this time of the year (ensuring he says even less than usual), with former Dublin half-forward Paul Clarke assigned to manage the Dubs’ Thirds. Now that is luxury.
Basement battle for Derry
At the bottom end of the 2019 league hierarchy, all eyes will be on Derry as they aim to navigate their way out of the unfamiliar and uncomfortable confines of Division Four. It has been an agonising ten months for the Oak Leafers since they suffered the ignominy of relegation at the end of March 2018. It was a drop that cast a long shadow over their short-lived championship summer and only now do they get a chance to play their way out of it. Games against Antrim and London should get them off to a winning start, and even though promotion is the simple aim, doing it with a degree of style would set Damian McErlain’s side up for a more positive championship in 2019.
What’s going on in the middle tier?
Division Two is extremely competitive this year with Donegal favourites to avenge their last-minute relegation in 2018 by jumping back up to Division One at the first time of asking. Kildare, Meath and Armagh look set to jostle for the top two positions. Perhaps one of Clare, Tipperary or Fermanagh can spring a surprise, but it looks a tall order. Cork? Who knows what will happen to them!
Division Three meanwhile is essentially the NFL’s wasteland. With no prospect of gaining national prominence, it only gets interesting once a reasonably high-profile county is in danger of relegation. Looking to avoid that fate this season is Down, who are simultaneously the team most likely to win promotion and for whom relegation would represent the biggest disaster. Laois – who have improved immeasurably under John Sugrue – are viable contenders to win a second successive promotion, while Longford could be surprise relegation fodder; they shipped a heavy defeat to Division Three neighbours Westmeath in the O’Byrne Cup and will be without their Mullinalaghta players for the early part of the league.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Wednesday 23rd January: Sigerson Cup Round 2 – featuring four “backdoor” games; the pick of which is Queen’s home tie against NUI Galway, following QUB’s defeat to Maynooth yesterday.
Saturday 26th January: NFL season begins, with Mayo hosting Roscommon in Castlebar.
Sunday 27th January: Round 1 NFL fixtures, headlined by Dublin’s trip to Clones to play Monaghan. Tyrone are in Kerry, and Donegal face an awkward looking tie away to Clare to open their Division 2 campaign.
And… now you’re up to date!
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