‘It would have been nice to see referees trying to execute the pass with Tomás Ó Sé or Graham Canty hanging out of them’
IT'S an annual observation in the GAA but, the more things change the more they stay the same. Right on cue, the championship opened with a blaze of controversy with referees bang in the middle of it.
This time, it was the ill-conceived attempt at something new which raised the hackles with the handpass rule claiming the spotlight for a week. The new rule is, I believe, a bit pointless, as I didn't see anything wrong with last year's interpretation. It really looks to be a case of a poor compromise by those who failed to have the pass changed completely.
It also shows the serious disconnect between the rule makers and the players. I know it's hard to get players to focus on these things in advance of their implementation but there really is no other way to do it properly. There's no point having a token player or two involved at the planning stage. And I had to laugh at the staged displays in the papers of 'how it should be done'. It would have been nice to see some former refs trying to execute the pass with Tomás Ó Sé or Graham Canty hanging out of them.
That said, rather than going to war with the GAA over it, I would be inclined to just plead for common sense. That means refs need to adopt the legal attitude of innocence until proven guilty. So just give players the benefit of the doubt unless you are convinced they have fouled it. Which, I'm pretty sure will happen over the next few weeks whether by instruction or individual interpretation, meaning the whole thing is, hopefully, a storm in a tea cup. Either that or we're going to have a very serious bust-up later in the year.
While the handpass controversy will probably evaporate, it's still a concern just how influential referees are becoming and how the games are being perceived as a result.
Good referees go unnoticed and I think the game may be changing too quickly and moving too quickly for some of them. A 'hands off' approach is tolerated, and works, in hurling and I think football should be interpreted the same way. Former players of my vintage are almost universally concerned that they're trying to take the physicality out of football -- we need to be convinced otherwise.
Speaking of referees, Tyrone boss Mickey Harte wasn't short of an opinion or two about how the games were being policed during the league but I suspect he might reserve his counsel a little more on Sunday.
Tyrone can prosper from a low-key approach and with expectations low after a poor league, an early victory over Antrim would be just the tonic for the road ahead.
Having watched Antrim in the Division 3 final I would expect Tyrone to emerge more comfortably than I originally felt. Their experience is simply too deep. And, if they can do so unscathed, they will be nicely set up for the more intriguing clash with Down or Donegal, which promises to be one of the first big indicators of the championship ahead.
Antrim's progress, in club and county, has been one of the features of the past year and a half and it would be wonderful to experience a good giant killing. I would hope that the people of Belfast and the surrounding areas descend in big numbers to Casement for what should be a special occasion. But occasions in the spotlight aren't always the most conducive to the shock result. With Sean Cavanagh pulling the strings again, I think this will be a straightforward progression for Tyrone.
Meath's trip to Portlaoise should be equally straightforward. While their Division 2 run was largely uninspiring they have way too much firepower up front for Offaly.
This is an interesting championship season for Meath. Sunday will indicate what kind of work they were doing during the spring.
Eamonn O'Brien impressed me in how he handled their run last year, particularly his public comments. However, his tactics were a little one dimensional. The constant long balls to the inside line didn't really work last year even if they eventually forced a break against Mayo in the quarter-final. If you look at Kerry, it's the quality and variety of ball they put in that gives their forwards such an advantage.
It's a big summer for some of their key players like Nigel Crawford and Mark Ward in the middle of the park, and Kevin Reilly at the heart of their defence.
Meath's attitude during matches is still good; they play to the line. But it is the quality that has been lacking in recent years. If they can address that they would be doing more than themselves a favour in a province which is failing dismally to cut it when it matters.
Longford failed to make any headway in the bottom division during the spring and I take Louth to progress in the other Leinster clash.
Waterford's heart-breaking league final loss to Limerick still leaves them in good nick for the visit of fellow Division 4 rivals Clare. The bookies have made Waterford favourites but I'm going to wager a small sum that this is the first draw of the summer.