Sunday 20 January 2019

New handpass rule attracting most anger - but the jury is still out

Kildare manager Cian O'Neill during the Bord na Móna O'Byrne Cup Round 3 match between Westmeath and Kildare at the Downs GAA Club in Westmeath. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Kildare manager Cian O'Neill during the Bord na Móna O'Byrne Cup Round 3 match between Westmeath and Kildare at the Downs GAA Club in Westmeath. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Frank Roche

MAYBE it’s a sign that the new rules are in trouble when Kildare manager Cian O’Neill clarifies that he’s not a fan, contrary to media perception.

But he’s not alone.

The group stages of the O’Byrne Cup have been completed along with two rounds of the Dr McKenna Cup and the opening forays of the McGrath Cup and FBD League.

All of which means the clock is ticking ever closer to January 19, when Central Council will debate the initial success or otherwise of the five experimental rules currently on trial.

And if you’re to believe some of the harshest critics, they won’t survive that initial review and make it to the Allianz Football League start-line.

“That’s the thing that irks most people: you actually don’t know what’s next after the 19th,” said O’Neill after watching his Kildare charges crash out of the O’Byrne Cup on Sunday following a

six-point defeat (1-13 to 1-7) to Westmeath.

“And after the league they’re gone anyway (for the 2019 championship) so that’s probably the most frustrating thing, that there’s no direction or clarity around where you’re going with them.”

Declan Bonner seems to be more sure what comes next: he told reporters on Sunday that he hasn’t even integrated the new handpass rule into his training, convinced that the restriction to three consecutive handpasses will be abandoned. 

This proposal has generated by far the most scepticism. All of which is scarcely a surprise, not just because (a) players and especially coaches instinctively don’t like change and (b) it’s the most radical new rule of the lot; but also because of the backfiring consequences.

A queue of managers have bemoaned flowing moves stifled by an enforced kick backward or sideways - or whistled up for an illegal fourth pass.

The chorus grew even louder in Newry on Sunday when a goal from Down’s Conor McGrady was disallowed after one handpass too many. Donegal were the direct beneficiaries but, if anything, it only served to further entrench the opposition of their manager.

“I’m so tired talking about them,” Bonner complained. “It’s actually curtailing goal opportunities, about eight or nine different times in the match it curtailed good movement, good flowing moves. Is that improving the game of football? I think it’s a waste of time and I’ve said it all along.”

Not every participant has been so dogmatic. Ger Egan was Westmeath’s Man of the Match against Kildare, and one of his six points came via an attacking mark - one of three Westmeath scores generated by players catching a 20m foot-pass struck from outside the opposition’s 45m line.

But even Egan proffered mixed views on the various changes.

“I’d say the mark is a good idea - it promotes kicking and forward movement,” he reasoned, before adding: “It’s hard to know if you work on them in training because you don’t know if they’re coming into the league. Free shots at goals should be going over the bar every time.”

Ronan O’Toole also converted two attacking marks in the second half - evidence that Westmeath were using the rule against 14 men to good effect.

Curiously, O’Toole had earlier called for a first-half mark in error, having caught a pass delivered from inside the 45m line, and was duly whistled for over-holding.

Shortly before that, Egan had been blown up for a fourth handpass that had threatened to open up Kildare’s defence.

“The handpass is just awkward more than anything else,” the Tyrrellspass man later commented. “It’s nearly as awkward for the referee as it is for the players; when you’re going down the middle of the pitch and you’re on your third handpass, what do you do? Do you kick it over your head? You can see the idea behind it but there needs to be tweaking, especially in the forwards.”

He continued: “You have to play the rules. If they’re in, they’re in; if they’re not, they’re not. In fairness, you would feel sorry for the referees - they have so much to bloody think about. What’s black, what’s yellow, what’s red?”

Egan saw merit in a ten-minute sin-bin, even though there were no black card examples on Sunday.

“I think there has to be a more severe punishment where you’re off for 10 minutes,” he agreed, “instead of a black card where it’s just a straight swap.”

His manager, Jack Cooney, perhaps spoke for many when suggesting that the jury is still out on the new rules.

While there are “pros and cons” to the handpass rule, Cooney concluded that it stifles the “attacking mindset” of a team on its third handpass.

On the plus side, he sees merit in an attacking mark that dangles a “risk-reward” carrot for those delivering a long kick.

Likewise, “the kickout on the 20m line is workable because there’s a defined area where you can’t receive the ball, which is inside the D. So that’s easy for referees to adjudicate on.”

If only it were all that easy ...

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