Alan Murphy of Kilkenny is tackled by Dublin players, from left, Jake Malone, Dáire Gray and James Madden, resulting in a penalty, during the 2021 Leinster GAA Senior Hurling Championship Final match between Dublin and Kilkenny at Croke Park in Dublin.
Alan Murphy of Kilkenny is tackled by Dublin players, from left, Jake Malone, Dáire Gray and James Madden, resulting in a penalty, during the 2021 Leinster GAA Senior Hurling Championship Final match between Dublin and Kilkenny at Croke Park in Dublin.

Playing rule changes lead to more scores and less fouls


By John Harrington

The statistics don’t lie, the new penalties for certain aggressive, often deemed cynical, fouls in hurling and football ratified by GAA Annual Congress 2021 had a profoundly positive impact on both codes in League and Championship.

So successful were the new deterrents proposed by the Standing Committee on Playing Rules (SCPR) in reducing cynical fouling and increasing scoring rates in both hurling and Gaelic football that Central Council will bring a motion to GAA Annual Congress 2022 proposing they be retained for another two years with some fine-tuned amendments.

Before we delve into exactly what those amendments are, it’s worthwhile first reminding ourselves what the new penalties for aggressive and cynical fouling in both hurling and football were in 2021, and the measurable impact they had in both codes.

The temporary rules in question were Rule 5.46 (Rules of Hurling) and Rule 5.42 (Rules of Football).

In hurling, if a player with a goal-scoring opportunity either inside the 20-metre line or the semi-circular arc that extends from the 20-metre line was pulled down, tripped, or struck with a hurley in a careless manner, then a penalty was awarded, and the offender sent to the sinbin for 10 minutes.

If the foul committed was a second caution or one that merited a red card, then the offender was ordered off for the remainder of the game including any extra-time to be played.

Similarly, in football, if a cynical foul was committed on an attacking player with a goal-scoring opportunity inside the 20-metre line or the semi-circular arc, then a penalty was awarded to the team affected.

So, what impact did these new rules have on hurling and football in 2021? The statistics compiled by Gaelic Stats, who have been analysing GAA matches for over a decade, would suggest a significant one.

Let’s look at football first. In 2021, the League scores per game (36.4pts) was the highest on record while the Championship scores (37.3pts) was the second highest in Gaelic football since 1887.

Drill deeper into those scoring statistics, and you find that the number of goals scored in the 2021 All-Ireland SFC was the most since 1990, notwithstanding the different formats that have existed in the intervening period.

Darren McCurry of Tyrone scores his side's second goal during the 2021 GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Mayo and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. 
Darren McCurry of Tyrone scores his side's second goal during the 2021 GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Mayo and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. 

As teams became accustomed to the new rules, the incidence of fouling reduced from an average of 44 during the League to 35 in the Championship.

In hurling, the 2021 Championship scores per game (59.2pts) was the highest yet in the history of Championship hurling while the goals per game (3.5) was the highest in the championship since 2012.

Cynical fouling fell significantly from 1.4 per game in 2020 to 0-4 per game in 2021, which Chairperson of the SCPR, David Hassan, believes is directly attributable to the new sinbin/penalty punishment.

“We were aware that 75% of all fouls defined as being cynical in hurling took place inside the opposition’s 20-metre line and the adjoining arc. With the introduction of a sanction that supported the principle that if a goal scoring opportunity is denied it should be reinstated, alongside the need for some form of contemporary penalty designed to encourage behavioural change on the part of the player who committed the foul, there was now no benefit to the team or the individual concerned to commit these sorts of fouls, which in some cases had directly altered the outcome of games,” Hassan told GAA.ie

“The deterrent was now greater than any benefit that might be derived from committing the foul – it no longer paid to foul in other words. I think that's an important point because you almost have a self-correcting process whereby players amended their own behaviour without the referee, in many cases, having to sanction this activity.”

“The fact that the 2021 hurling championship was the highest scoring championship in the history of the game is testimony to the remarkable advancements made by players and the standards they can now achieve.

“Likewise, the increase in the number of goals scored - the highest number in almost a decade - is also significant in the sense that there was a concern that there were somehow fewer goals being scored in our games or that it was harder to actual score a goal than in previous years.

“The fact that you've had more goals scored in the 2021 Football Championship for more than two decades is also notable. Not since Cork won the All-Ireland in 1990 have more goals been scored in a football championship year.

“If people want to see scores and if scores, at least in some way, equate to overall entertainment value, then, yes, I think both the hurling and football championships can be regarded as having been a success, notwithstanding – it should be recognised – the on-going debate around competitive balance, which is an important one for the Association to have.

“All things combined, however, there's definitely a rising tide in both sports.”

Limerick supporters celebrate their third goal during the 2021 GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Limerick in Croke Park, Dublin. 
Limerick supporters celebrate their third goal during the 2021 GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Limerick in Croke Park, Dublin. 

Last weekend Central Council ratified the SCPR’s proposal to retain the rule deterring forms of cynical foul play while also improving it by supporting a definition of what is meant by the denial of a goal-scoring opportunity.

Firstly, it does this by defining it (i.e., the denial of a goal-scoring opportunity) in terms of location, i.e. within the semi-circular arc or inside the 20-metre line, but as a ‘rule of thumb’ not within 25 metres infield of each side-line.

Secondly, the proposed rule would stipulate that a foul to deny a goal-scoring opportunity must be on the player in possession of the ball, whilst, thirdly, the rule would ensure that the judgement of the referee is retained in terms of adjudicating whether the foul that was committed was one of those identified in the temporary rule and that it had denied a goal-scoring opportunity.

“What we can say with certainty is that having analysed a random selection of 27 senior championship hurling matches in 2020 and 2021, that in those games only one goal was scored from outside the 20-metre line or in area further away from the goals (i.e., left or right of either goal post) than 10 metres,” revealed Hassan.

“And that one goal was scored from the semi-circular arc, which is why we have retained that as far as the enhanced motion is concerned.

“We have a very detailed understanding of where goals are directly scored from in hurling, so that's why we have sought to narrow the part of the field inside the 20 m line where the denial of a goal scoring opportunity becomes a factor.

Below you can view the exactly wording of the proposed amendments to temporary rules 5.46 (Rules of Hurling) and Rule 5.42 (Rules of Football) and an explainer of these proposed rules.