Have you ever said to yourself “I love basketball, football and rugby with a passion but it would be a dream to play them all at once” ? Well then I have just the thing for you. A sport for those who fancy carrying the ball like rugby, but prefer a rounder shape. For those who fancy bouncing it every now and again, but also want the luxury of booting it into the net. A sport played with enormous teams but on suitably large pitches. I give you, Gaelic football.
It’s a sport many have heard of but very few play. As the name suggests, it’s huge in Ireland and is slowly starting to leak onto our television screens if you’re lucky enough to have premium channels. It incorporates numerous elements from a number of different sports, fulfilling my promise above. 15 men take to pitches larger than that of rugby with two goals at either end. These aren’t any ordinary nets, but hybrid football-rugby structures through which points can be scored by passing the ball into either element. Players can carry the ball in a similar fashion to rugby, but must either bounce or ‘solo’ it (kicking off the foot back into the hands) every four steps. You must advance down the pitch, with very little contact available to defenders other than intercepting or one-hand tackling, after which attackers can make an attempt on goal either through the posts (one point) or into the net (three points). Simple right? Well, yeah it is actually. I mean no insult to those who play, as with any sport there are complex tactics and strategies involved, but this is mostly due to the lack of tackling opportunities and ease of movement over such a large area. But this statement isn’t made naively, I went to a session in Hyde Park on a wet Wednesday to try out this classic Irish sport. Spoiler: I may well be going again.
After a brief but tiring warm up (I really need to get fit if I’m going to continue these give-it-a-go sessions) we’re straight into some practice drills. There are only a few players at the session, but there’s enough team spirit and banter for three times the numbers present. I’m keen to add, and would be remiss not to mention, that it was a mixed session with no segregation at all. Admittedly only one female was present, but she was given no special treatment and rightly so. I digress. The drills are non-stop and comprehensive, with clear aims and transferable skills. I am instantly impressed with their ability to run sessions with very little equipment and space; even those with little experience in the sport can enjoy a good fitness regime and improved dexterity which I’m sure you’ll agree are pivotal in most ball games. Those who regularly play football or rugby would benefit from such a sport. Not that I’m suggesting you moonlight with Gaelic football but, you know, you could.
We practice pass and move, team communication and sprint exercises. This is followed by defender pursuits, where you learn how to navigate the limited tackling allowances within the game. Here I can boast some success, as I surprised the chap running the session by twisting and turning the defender into a whirlwind of confusion. There might be some embellishment here but hey, I excel at few sports so I’ll take the win. It was soon overturned when the roles were reversed, as I let the defender get away without even catching up to him. Kind reprise or sluggish running? You decide.
We soon move onto half-pitch practice runs. Split into defenders and attackers, those running at the goal practice manoeuvres designed to draw the backs out creating space for a well-aimed punt between the rugby-style posts or ideally, a drill into the net. Once again, I’m given the opportunity to see if any Irish blood runs through my veins. Placed in the forward position, I move with ballet-like grace around the defenders. Ducking and diving around the quagmire we’ve lovingly called the goal-mouth, I find some space and the ball in my hand. I turn towards the goal, set myself up and blast it into the bottom corner. I hear whispers of “Wow” around me, but I’m sure it was just the wind. I’m absolutely loving this; I get to relive past memories of football which have slipped away from me and learn a new game. It’s a sport with benefits for those who desire to improve their fitness whilst enjoying great team spirit. You learn important off-the-ball skills, like losing your marker and creating space on what can become a very crowded pitch. Whilst chatting with the other players, I’m told other universities invite other sports teams to joint their practice sessions. Rugby players would benefit from improved ball-carrying and footwork, footballers would improve their shots on goal under pressure and basketballers will… bounce more.
Anyway, here’s a sport that encompasses multiple skills and has a rich history within the British Isles. The number of people who turned up to this session wouldn’t constitute a full Gaelic team, a travesty considering there are few match commitments due to a lack of teams around the country. The benefits far outweigh the time commitments, and all the skills you learn are transferable to a variety of scenarios. I’ve said it before and I wholeheartedly mean it again, go along and give this a go. Amateurs have nothing to worry about, seasoned sports players have nothing to lose.