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Some still struggling to catch on to mark

McManus setting the standard for taking advantage of rule change

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8 February 2020; Conor McManus of Monaghan calls a mark despite the attention of David Byrne of Dublin during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 3 match between Dublin and Monaghan at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

8 February 2020; Conor McManus of Monaghan calls a mark despite the attention of David Byrne of Dublin during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 3 match between Dublin and Monaghan at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

8 February 2020; Conor McManus of Monaghan calls a mark despite the attention of David Byrne of Dublin during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 3 match between Dublin and Monaghan at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Some 48 minutes into what was effectively the Allianz Football League Division 1 relegation clash between Mayo and Tyrone, Darren Coen neatly put a ball onto Aidan O'Shea's chest, offering rare clean possession for the home captain and full-forward on a difficult day.

Instinctively, O'Shea swivelled to his right and took off, but four or five steps later he checked again and called an advanced mark.

For referee Niall Cullen though, it was too late. O'Shea had already made his decision to play on and the advantage of Coen's precision and his own anticipation had been lost. The player's protests were futile.

It underlined how players are still coming to terms with a rule change that has so much decision-making attached to it.

In the first place, the recipient must quickly compute if it was kicked from outside the 45-metre line and did it come from general play, not a quickly-taken free?

This may look straightforward from the comfort of a seat in the stand or in a living room but, at base level where the pitch markings are less visible, this isn't always easy to determine. The other factor is the distance travelled. The required 20 metres isn't always easy to measure mentally and remains at the referee's discretion.

These calculations must be made by a receiver while, at the same time, weighing up what's on around him.

Earlier in last Sunday's Castlebar clash, Conor McKenna had sliced that wonderful 50-metre pass onto Darragh Canavan's chest that was tailor-made to take a mark.

But Canavan's first instinct was to go, and he was rewarded for the more ambitious approach.

The advanced mark has been in play for two league campaigns, one as an experiment and more recently as a permanent rule change.

Its impact has not been felt in the way that some envisaged, or perhaps feared, and the optics haven't always been good. When Donegal captain Michael Murphy got out ahead of Stephen Coen to take a chipped pass from Ciarán Thompson and called one from about 35 metres - subsequently converting it - in their opening league game against Mayo in late January, it was held up as an example of the new rule's flaws. Murphy was slowing down by the time the ball hit his chest. Was it not too easy for the Donegal captain to create a scoring opportunity that otherwise would have demanded much more of him and his team if play had continued?

The contrast with Dublin's Ciarán Kilkenny on the same night in Croke Park could not have been greater. Under pressure from Kerry's Tadhg Morley as they both got under Paul Mannion's delivery, Kilkenny was able to stand his ground and catch. Morley had the option to bat away but Kilkenny's 'take' was what the architects surely had more in mind when they crafted the rule initially.

Performance analyst Rob Carroll has been tracking the impact of the various new rules implemented in Gaelic football and in the first five rounds before lockdown, estimated the number of scores off marks was less than one per game and that only 60 per cent of marks resulted in a shot.

The jury is still out on it and will continue to be for some time. In the meantime, some teams have cleverly built it into their arsenal.

Mickey Harte has been averse to rule changes in Gaelic football, but since the return to play over the last two weekends, Tyrone have scored more - four points - from marks than any other team.

Significantly, a defender, Michael McKernan, has got in behind enemy lines to take two in the games against Donegal and Mayo, while Frank Burns and Conal McCann have also profited from cross-field kicks.

Master

The undisputed master 'marker' is Monaghan's Conor McManus who, over the last two weekends of league action, has illustrated again why he should be considered one of the great kickers of a ball in this or any era.

In regulation games across the 2019 and 2020 leagues, McManus has been the leading 'mark' scorer in both, adding four points in 2020 to the six he chipped in with a year and more earlier.

McManus can call for a mark in the knowledge that when he stands over the resultant kick, the odds on conversion are stacked in his favour, irrespective of the distance or angle he finds himself at. Left unchallenged, he has the capacity to hurt teams with full exploitation of the new rule.

It's no surprise that some of the game's leading forwards - McManus, David Clifford, Murphy and Kilkenny, lead the mark scoring charts. Obviously plenty of ball is put their way in the course of a game, but they have the awareness to know when putting a hand up on receipt is more profitable to their team than playing on.

With seven, Monaghan were the joint leading 'mark' scorers in the 2020 league with Dublin. Tyrone are next on six. In 2019, Dublin led the way with 10, compared to Monaghan's nine, despite the indifference of then manager Jim Gavin to it.

Even making the assumption that space should be at a greater premium, the propensity of Division 1 teams to be thinking 'marks' is greater than the other divisions. By our count there were 83 points from marks, 39 alone in the top flight, with just seven in the basement. In between, Division 2 and 3 teams scored from 19 and 18 respectively.


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