Handled without care
Failure of Congress to trial Connacht's handpassing proposal highlights a fatal flaw in the playing rule change procedure, writes Martin Breheny
We should have known it would cause a controversy. And, to be honest, some did. I was talking to John Bannon, now retired from the inter-county refereeing circuit, late last week and he expressed concern over the impact the new handpass rule would have on the early rounds of the football championship.
In particular, he was predicting difficulties in the three games last Sunday because they were to be the first played under the untested 'underhand' transfer. Bannon believed that while there was nothing complicated about the amended rule, it had got very little publicity.
It had scarcely featured at all in the Congress coverage for the simple reason that it was passed after a short discussion, presumably because few saw anything particularly significant in the addition of the word 'underhand' to the existing rule. There were no practical demonstrations at Congress (nobody in the hall had a football to show exactly what was involved!), nor was it displayed on video.
Instead, the Connacht Council proposed it, contending that it would be an improvement on the existing rule, an argument that clearly convinced the vast majority. Besides, most of the experimental rules had been vetoed so something had to get through.
And, shortly afterwards, the delegates were on their way out into a beautiful Saturday afternoon by the sea in Newcastle, Co Down.
They had come with a mandate to vote on the substantial package of proposals encompassing the experimental rules that had applied in the National Leagues and with most of the them (certainly in football) zapped into oblivion, there was no real interest in analysing the precise difference the addition of the word 'underhand' would have on the handpass.
"In real terms, it's not that much of a change," said Bannon yesterday, "but I hadn't seen or heard very much about it in the media or elsewhere in the intervening weeks. That always left the possibility for the sort of issues that arose last Sunday."
And boy were there problems, as managers and players from Kerry, Tipperary, Derry, Armagh, Carlow and Wicklow unloaded the heavy guns in the direction of the new rule and its implementing agents.
Ludicrous, silly, daft and ridiculous were among the descriptions that poured forth from dressing-rooms in Celtic Park, Portlaoise and Thurles.
Much the same tone was adopted by the panellists on 'The Sunday Game', who seemed delighted to have something other than the actual games to talk about.
"You could hear the groans from the crowd every time players were blown up for what were legitimate handpasses," complained Anthony Tohill.
Since when have the spectators, who can be anything from 20 to 180 metres away from the action, been in a position to adjudicate on what is correct in a borderline call? That apart, the vast majority have a vested interest so their opinion might be a wee bit short on objectivity.
Tohill's point was further undermined by the stats from the Derry-Armagh game, which showed that of the 196 handpasses executed, only six were adjudged to be illegal by Maurice Deegan, which hardly constitutes a crisis.
Only six handpasses were deemed illegal from a total of 270 in the Kerry-Tipperary game. That's 12 from a total of 466, which is really quite small. And with players now aware of the risks, it's likely to be down further tomorrow.
Calls from some quarters to have the new rule rescinded immediately were unbelievably daft. Apart from the fact that it would have made a mockery of the GAA, there is no mechanism to allow for such a move.
Perhaps emergency redrafting could have been introduced if a new rule were shown to be, in some way, dangerous, but the GAA might as well close its doors if it reacted to pressure to amend a rule that requires a player making a handpass to use an 'underhand' movement.
Incidentally, a player can fist the ball any way he wants, so it's not as if his options have been reduced.
Still, there's an obvious lesson to be learned from last weekend's controversy. As things stand, any club, county or provincial council can propose a playing rule change every five years. None of them will have been trialled in an experimental phase, whereas Central Council motions usually are.
That was the case this spring where the Central Council package was analysed in detail during the National Leagues, whereas the Connacht Council proposal appeared on the Congress agenda without coming under scrutiny in actual match situations.
The Connacht motion came to Congress merely as a form of words, which Congress accepted without much analysis of the possible impact. The procedure should be amended so that anybody wishing to propose a playing rule change would have to submit it 12 months in advance so that it could be trialled in the run-up to the next Congress.
An interesting aside arising from last weekend's controversy centres on the relentless growth of handpassing in Gaelic football.
It has now taken such tight control that it is inevitable that when any amendment is made, it will spark howls of protest from players and, more especially, from managers and coaches.
Managers have become so powerful that they regard themselves as the ultimate arbiters in what is good and bad for the game when, in fact, it is largely a self-serving exercise as they tend to equate change with a cunning plot designed to hamper their own teams.
Ironically, the next motion after Connacht's on the Congress agenda, sponsored by Clare, called for a restriction on the handpass, making it mandatory to kick the ball after receiving it from a handpass. Clare, however, withdrew it - conscious no doubt that they had no chance whatsoever of getting it through.
And therein rests the real crux. A minor adjustment was made to the handpass rule when the more important question of how to curb it wasn't even addressed.
The handpass furore will die down in the coming weeks but the core problem still exists. Gaelic football can now be rebranded Gaelic basketball and will remain so for at least another five years as the playing rules cannot be revisited until 2015.
Meantime, rows will rage on over what constitutes a legal handpass. And, as ever, losing teams will be victims of most of the bad calls. At least that's what they will have you believe.