Gaelic football faces moment of truth - Stats show worrying trends but opposition to handpass rule cannot be ignored
Those promoting reform of Gaelic football find themselves in the dock, accused, among other things, of biting the hand that feeds. Of the five rule changes being currently experimented upon in low-profile competition, the handpass restriction has attracted the most interest and the most disdain.
The modern obsession with retaining and maximising possession has created the breeding ground for the handpassing epidemic which blights the game. This has come at kicking's cost, naturally, but limiting one will not necessarily promote the other in a meaningful way. At least not in the short term. That is what the current trial is attempting to achieve in restricting handpassing to a maximum of three in succession.
Reaction from players and managers has not been supportive, and now the GAA faces a test of nerve. Can it, pending a review when the first trial period ends shortly, carry the experiment through to the National League as intended, amid mounting opposition? A meeting of Central Council on January 19, a week before the start of the league, will be charged with making that call.
Through the GPA, county players have almost unanimously opposed the handpass rule being trialled. There has been no poll of managers but it is evident the vast majority look on it with doubt or outright contempt. Managers are generally wary of rule changes, going on the record of the last 30-odd years. It does not mean they are always wide of the mark but they are not necessarily the most reliable witnesses either, nor do they necessarily hold the game's best interests at heart. Week after week, game after game, managers have been lining up to devalue the package, with the odd exception.
On Saturday next the chairman of the group which introduced the handpass limit, David Hassan, will be at the annual coaching conference in Croke Park, explaining the rationale behind the reforms.
The handpass is the most vehemently opposed of five changes - the others being the advanced mark, moving the kick-out to the 20-metre line, requiring sidelines to be kicked forward except from inside the opposition 20 metre line, and having the black card replaced by the sin bin. In the period since 2011, based on studies of 322 championship matches, the average number of handpasses per match has gone up by 100.
A few years back at the GAA's annual coaching conference, one of the contributors, a widely respected football coach, joked self-deprecatingly that his game had four skills, according to someone he'd met from the hurling fold: catching, kicking, pulling and dragging. Football has had to live with those taunts. But while football has almost become more possession-driven, a hurler is not allowed catch a ball three times in succession. That is a fundamental difference from football. The diminished influence of catching and kicking in football is a valid concern and has been for a long time, and the demise of those traditional skills has accelerated in recent years.
Most people don't need stats to back this up; they can see it with their own eyes. The GAA is responding to a drop in interest in watching football and a fall in attendances. But the stats do make the eyes water at times. Two years ago the Connacht football final between Galway and Roscommon contained 474 handpasses. The Ulster football final between Donegal and Tyrone the same summer produced 412, and in Munster, Kerry and Tipperary shared 333. There were 164 kicks in the Munster final, and 126 in the Ulster final.
In the 2018 All-Ireland final, Dublin made 244 passes against Tyrone. Of those, just 54 were kickpasses. Overall, 78 per cent of Dublin's passes were made with the hand. The handpassing figure for Tyrone and Dublin combined was 75 per cent. In the All-Ireland final between Kerry and Tyrone ten years earlier, the handpassing percentage was 60 per cent. The 2008 final had one more kickpass and 137 fewer handpasses than its 2018 counterpart.
The Football Review Committee that reported in late 2012 fell short of proposing a restriction on handpassing but warned that if it became more prevalent, then action should be taken. But it is not just the rise in volume that has impacted on football as a spectacle. The number of consecutive passes has also raised concern. The highest number of passes in sequence in the 2008 final was nine. In last year's final Dublin put 29 passes together in one spell of possession, while Tyrone managed 16.
Gaelic football is used to a level of tinkering but the last significant changes successfully introduced after trials in the National League were in 1990, when the free and sideline were allowed be taken from the hand. In late 1997 further experimental rule changes were announced under a committee chaired by Noel Walsh. Their brief was to attempt to find a way of eradicating persistent fouling and encouraging more catching and kicking. The committee was top-heavy with key names in the game including Pat O'Neill, Eugene McGee, Martin Carney, Liam Sammon, Colm O'Rourke and Art McRory. At the time, Walsh said that the proposed reforms could not be tested reliably unless "tried out in the heat of championship football".
The All-Ireland semi-finals of 1997 showed a ratio of 76 handpasses to 56 kickpasses for Mayo, 71 to 55 for Offaly, 78-48 for Kerry and 86-27 for Cavan. Those ratios have gone in only one direction since. At the time Croke Park's Pat Daly, who has been involved on rule change committees going back to 1989, voiced his concern. "Handpassing has taken off to the extent that it supersedes kicking," he said. It far supersedes it now.
But can the GAA reverse this fundamental and seismic shift through rule change? Ultimately, any radical shift may have to come from within the game itself, organically. If cold-hearted coaches and tacticians have interfered with the true nature and enterprising spirit of football, with results their only concern, then that nature ought to be able to restore itself in time. Ultimately, players and coaches may decide that it is not the game they want to play or be part of, or what they believe in. This may be Gaelic football's moment of truth, its true existential test as a game. The alternative is to suffocate beneath a blanket of its own making.
Donegal manager Declan Bonner feels the GAA, however good its intentions, is jumping the gun. "Over the last, say, 18 months or two years you could see that the top teams are playing a more expansive game now. It has become more offensive," he states. "The one thing about the summer was that they were comparing the hurling to the Gaelic championship, two totally different games. But I definitely felt the top teams were pushing on and wanting to play a more open game and I didn't see the need (for rule change).
"I think the handpass (rule) is just ridiculous. It's difficult for the players, it's difficult for the referees, it's very difficult to control. A number of times last week we had a number of different situations where it went to four handpasses and they did not pick up on it. Imagine that in a championship match which is being analysed and over-analysed."
Bonner cites a familiar concern. "It's not enhancing the game, it's not moving the game forward. If anything it is slowing it down."
You could argue that it is incumbent on teams to find a new way, a more creative alternative and that eventually, if faced with an ongoing censorship on handpassing, they will resort more to kicking as part of their strategy. They will be obliged to rip it up and start again. We are, reputedly, in the golden age of football innovation. But to create the environment and stimulus will require a steely nerve on the part of the GAA to be able to withstand the inevitable barrage of criticism and unfavourable headlines along the way. Even those pushing for change can't say for certain if these reforms, given time, will bring about the desired effect. Would it really leave us with an unholy mess?
As for the difficulty in keeping tabs on handpassing, an additional task for the referee, the playing rules committee says it is satisfied that officials can manage. Joe McQuillan took charge of Fermanagh v Ulster University in the McKenna Cup under the new rules on December 15 and is an experienced All-Ireland final referee.
"It's no different to any other rule, just a matter of getting used to it," he says. "I am not saying I am fully in agreement with it but it's just another rule we've been asked to implement. I didn't find a major issue with it, I feel it is more hype than anything else.
"Players and media and general public going to games don't like change. Leaving that rule aside all the rest of the rules they've brought in are probably straightforward enough.
"It's only a matter of calling out the three handpasses. Are we always going to get it right? Probably not. It's trial and error. On the grapevine, from what I'm hearing, the handpass seems to be the only one that people have a problem with. It's another tool to put in the tool bag. I had only one game. It was very low profile. There was no major intensity. Maybe with two Division 1 teams in the league it might different, where you have other things you need to be looking at - it would be harder to enforce.
"It only becomes an issue once we miss a handpass and someone sticks the ball in the back of the net. And it is more than likely to happen. Probably the biggest thing is that they are bringing in that number of rule changes all at the one time. Once bigger teams meet in more high-profile games with more intensity are we going to be looking at handpasses or watching what a fella might do off the ball?"
From the 322 football championship matches studied from 2011 to 2018 it was found that the average number of kickpasses per game had fallen almost 15 per cent. If this trend continues it is estimated that there will be fewer than 96 kickpasses per game by 2023.
When they brought in the changes to kicking sidelines and frees from the hand in 1990 the outcomes could be foreseen. It speeded up the game and also, before yellow cards, discouraged fouling as a means of slowing down the game. The handpass alteration proposed now requires more of a leap of faith and will undoubtedly require being able to handle some pain. That kind of radicalism is missing.
"You have to look at this objectively and that's what the committee has done," says Pat Daly. "They haven't pulled things out of the sky. A large number of games have been analysed. I think it is incumbent on people to objectively look at these matches in that context. If people don't agree, fair enough, people are entitled to disagree but there is an obligation on people to look at the empirical data and the facts. We can see a significant trend here and it's not in the best interests of the game.
"You try to have as broad a consultative process as you can, try to gain as much feedback as you can, and try to be as objective as you can."
Bonner, during his time in charge, has changed Donegal into a more attacking side. It is put to him that managers are usually critical of change. "You have got to listen to the people that are involved," he says. "Ninety-six per cent of players voted against the three handpass rule. I am in the game long enough, best part of 40 years. We are all for improving the game any way we can but I don't think that is helping the game.
"The line ball was never an issue anyway, I don't think that will make any difference. The advanced mark may possibly and the sin bin but that's about it.
"To me it is about coaching. There are coaches out there who are negative or defensive but to me the majority of the coaches involved with the top ten teams know that if they want to compete with Dublin they must outplay them, and that is what teams are working towards.
"I don't want to be too negative but to me they don't work. The game is on the way back in my opinion."
Sunday Indo Sport