Monday 17 June 2019

Frank Roche: 'Now that the handpass rule has been jettisoned, the potential of the offensive mark may be realised'

Kildare's Jimmy Hyland has capitalised on the offensive mark
Kildare's Jimmy Hyland has capitalised on the offensive mark

Frank Roche

ELVIS has left the building. And he’s brought with him the hand-pass rule, decommissioned by Central Council before it even got an airing in a competition that actually matters.

That didn’t last long, did it?

But several other trial rules – four in all – have been embraced for a further two-and-a-bit months of Allianz League experimentation.

Are they as fundamental as the three-in-a-row hand-pass restriction? Clearly not. Or as potentially disruptive to the best-laid plans of coaches and managers, wedded as they are to ball retention at all costs? Again, negative.

That explains why they haven’t caused remotely like the same level of outrage. Some of them have even elicited (shock, horror!) mild approval from the Inter-County Managers’ Union, whose sanguine approach has left us wondering if there’s some covert conspiracy afoot.

Or maybe it’s simply this: you pick your battles. They went after the hand-pass rule because that was Enemy No 1 but also the most vulnerable to a sustained assault.

Our own tuppecence-worth, from the admittedly brief evidence of a few O’Byrne Cup matches, is that the hand-pass restriction had some merit (at least getting players to think about using foot instead of hand), but this was ultimately outweighed by several obvious negatives.

Namely this: 

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(1) It punished the attacking team far more than defences, especially in the derailment of incisive scoring moves.

(2) It challenged the numeracy skills of already over-worked referees and, while this might be forgivable in January, it would ignite fire and brimstone if it came at the loss of two precious league points.

(3) It did nothing to remedy football’s greatest blight, that of massed zonal defences. 

The rule always struck us as tackling the symptoms of football’s current malaise rather than the cause. Slick use of the hand-pass has been one on the most successful ways to beat the blanket. 

True, you cannot plausibly argue that the ratio of hand-passes has soared purely because of defensive football (foot-passing was a faltering art long beforehand) but a restriction that punishes the attacking team is not going to help either.

However, this debate has been rendered redundant by Saturday’s vote. Far better to concentrate on the trial rules that will be in place. And one of those – the offensive mark – could have a far greater and more positive impact than we have witnessed so far.

Here is a rule that, rather than punishing a ‘crime’ (the dreaded hand-pass), rewards a virtue (an accurate foot-pass to a forward showing good hands and/or clever movement into space). 

The kick-out ‘mark’ was roundly condemned by many – predominantly managers – prior to its introduction but has subsequently confounded the critics.

Here is another rule that, properly embraced, could prove just as successful. It also gives defenders and coaches an additional headache, because the current modus operandi of suffocating the forward in possession is rendered obsolete if that player has caught a clean 20m foot-pass delivered from outside the ‘45’.

Strangely, though, the pre-season tournaments didn’t give rise to a glut of pointed marks. More like a trickle in places. The three O’Byrne Cup games witnessed by this observer produced 0-4 in converted marks (Westmeath v Kildare), just 0-1 (Dublin v Meath) and none at all (Westmeath v Dublin).

Kildare’s rising star, Jimmy Hyland, had earlier landed 0-3 from marks in their opener against Carlow. Westmeath hit the same total against 14-man Kildare – and missed a further two, all five attempts in the second half. This was suggestive of a team making a concerted effort to capitalise on the space afforded by their numerical supremacy.

Otherwise, though, the rule’s potential has not been maximised. Maybe that will all change, now that we’re no longer counting hand-passes.

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