Fists of fury
A few weeks ago Mike McGurn related a story of pure simplicity about how Armagh adapted to the handpass experimented with during the league.
The experiment called for the closed fist only and, as this was at odds with the method of dispatch of almost every modern Gaelic footballer at club and county level, it caused instant confusion.
Armagh buttoned their collective lip and embraced what was being tried out. One evening at home in his living room a vase of decorative pebbles his wife had laid out caught McGurn's attention and set him thinking.
The next night at training in Callanbridge the Armagh players were presented with a pebble each from the McGurn living room in Belfast and requested to return it at the end of a sequence of handpassing drills.
The method in McGurn's madness was simple. If the players could return the pebbles at the end of the exercise then their execution of handpasses had to have been technically correct, i.e. with the closed fist.
In Celtic Park on Sunday last Armagh were penalised for errant handpasses much less than Derry. That's not to say that Derry prepared less for the modification of the handpass but there must be some correlation between their trainer's innovative thinking and what transpired on the field. Instead of complaining about it, they got on with it.
Whether the modification to the handpass passed at last month's Congress is right or wrong is largely irrelevant now. The rule is passed and, with no facility for change for the next five years, all teams must just adapt.
When the director general Paraic Duffy spoke in Croke Park yesterday to outline the Association's position, there was no sense that immediate change was on the horizon. Duffy's main point was to emphasise how the information had been disseminated to the counties over the last month.
He stressed that every board and, consequently, every manager was informed of the forthcoming change. If every manager was informed by every board then every player should have been aware of what was happening too.
Being aware is one matter, being able to change what is probably the habit of a lifetime is a different matter entirely. That is the challenge for players now.
The rule passed at Congress four weeks earlier is not even the same rule trialled during the league, which was the exclusive use of the closed fist to handpass without any recourse to the open handpass, whether underhand or not.
The inclusion of the open hand as long as there is a clear underhand striking action only transpired late on when the reaction in the early stages of the league to the fisted handpass made it clear that it had no chance at Congress. The Connacht Council motion which included the open hand was effectively a compromise to avoid the failure of the league experiment completely.
By and large, referees would rather if the handpass was restricted to closed fist only. The national referee's chairman Mick Curley admitted yesterday that he would rather if the rule permitted the closed fist pass only and his sentiments are concurred with by the game's most experienced referee, Pat McEnaney, who admits there is much ambiguity for referees in deciding in real time if the correct technique has been used or not.
"I'd rather if it was a closed fist entirely but it removes that bit of ambiguity that is there in determining whether a pass has been made correctly or not," said McEnaney yesterday.
Curley believes that the handpass rule will eventually settle down as the season presses on and is satisfied that referees were given no instruction to enforce this particular rule with extra vigour early on. The question is whether this is the handpass that the vast majority of players, managers, officials and spectators want.
Clearly it was the view of Congress last month that it was, but the post-match reaction and reaction on the terraces on Sunday was wholly different.
The open handpass that existed before this year allowed much greater flexibility for the player who could execute a short, sharp delivery with hand action quite close to the body that allowed for speed of movement of the ball and greater security for possession.
With a fist pass and a clear underhand movement the transfer is slower and the exposure of the ball to an opponent is greater. But the feeling among the task force which looked into playing rule changes was that the open hand was too loose and needed to be tightened.
Perhaps managers who are aghast at the introduction of the new rule should question their own county officials who went to Congress on their behalf and legislated for them. How did they vote on this issue and if so, why did they do so? In some cases there was a consultation process, in others there was not.
It's too easy to apportion general blame to Croke Park for introducing new rules but that's not the case at all. And it's certainly not the case that counties were not informed.
If Croke Park stands indicted for anything it is the structure of Congress now. This year, at a 'playing rules Congress', there were far too many motions on the clár for proper discussion and, as a consequence, delegates were switched off for too many key discussions.
Jarlath Burns questioned the system last month in the aftermath and proposed a separate playing rules Congress away from the annual forum that discusses more fundamental matters. In light of last weekend's reaction that suggestion should gather pace now.
Last week, on hearing that he was to take charge of the Ulster quarter-final between Tyrone and Antrim, McEnaney took the opportunity to contact Mickey Harte and Liam Bradley, just as other managers had the opportunity last week to hear from their match officials. He wanted both men to understand what was at stake. In other words there was no point in complaining afterwards.
In time this issue will settle down and the handpasses will become as loose as the policing of them. Anyone who has the experience of the first day of the 1999 championship when six players were dismissed in the Westmeath/Carlow Leinster championship match will appreciate that.
In future playing rule changes should have their own separate forum and managers and players should exercise their views at these. Speaking to the cameras, after a first-round championship match in May, is too late.