Friday 23 February 2018

Storm over handpass rule seems a million miles away

Damian Lawlor

IT SEEMS like an eternity since Tipperary manager John Evans dusted himself down from a defeat to Kerry and faced the cameras to speak about intelligent fools and silly rules.

Remember the fuss surrounding the opening two weekends of the summer?

Remember Kieran Donaghy fisting a perfectly legitimate handpass to Bryan Sheehan against Tipperary only to be pulled up for misuse of the ball? Sheehan went on to slot home a goal, but it was disallowed. Up North, as Derry and Armagh locked horns, Eoin Bradley gave a wholly valid handpass to a colleague only to have the referee, who was behind him, deem it illegal.

No doubt about it, the start of the championship was badly blighted by that controversial new handpass rule.

The opening fixtures; the Kerry/Tipp, Meath/Offaly and Carlow/Wicklow games were definitely the worst affected and the fallout prompted the likes of Mick O'Dwyer, Luke Dempsey, Evans, and O'Connor to spit fire. Acres of ink were devoted to the controversy in the newspapers, internet forums burned with critique and the airwaves buzzed with rage.

With the flame lit, Tyrone manager Mickey Harte added to the blaze by unleashing his own fury at the new directive.

"People have said simplistically, it's a joke. It isn't a joke. It's too serious to be a joke," he said. "I think it's crazy that the fist pass as experimented with during the league and McKenna Cup was rejected at Congress and in the very next motion they actually brought in the previous rule. I don't know what happened there, but it was crazy."

In a way, he was right. On deeper analysis, the new rule is straightforward enough but the fact that the GAA asked experienced inter-county footballers to forget what they had learned over the past 20 years and learn a new style of handpass just days before the start of the 2010 championship drove the players nuts.

Dublin footballer Paul Flynn labelled the new rule as "a disgrace" and hit a chord when he reckoned the six counties who played on the opening day of the championship were "the guinea pigs" who suffered most. Sean Cavanagh said Tyrone would just go with their instinct against Antrim and hope for the best. He also admitted that he "cringed" while watching Meath and Offaly.

That game saw referee Derek Fahy apply a no-tolerance interpretation of what constituted a legal handpass, a policy that attracted much uproar.

The Sunday Game reflected that acrimony and plunged the issue well and truly into the public domain. In an attempt to quell the hype, GAA director-general Páraic Duffy faced the media to remind us that the rule had actually been passed five weeks earlier and that teams had been briefed. While the blame-game seekers turned on the Congress delegates who voted this rule in, Duffy kept calm and predicted the storm would pass.

He was spot on.

The clouds have most definitely lifted. But have players adjusted, or are referees more lenient?

Former Donegal All Star and leading Gaelic football analyst Martin McHugh reckons it's a bit of both. "The referees have definitely made a change and are not blowing now unless they are entirely certain that a foul handpass was made," he says.

"Overall, I think the whole thing will be phased out over the season. Referees will blow for fouls they are certain of, especially out the field. That will keep the rule makers happy and it will take pressure off the match officials too."

Referees Committee chairman Mick Curley was another who was sure the commotion would die down but reasons that it is more a case of players adjusting than referees compromising.

"Everyone is used to it now," he says. "The referees' fears have been sorted out and the players have taken to the new rule. You don't find as many foul passes called.

"It took a while," he admits. "We held a referees' seminar the week after Antrim played Tyrone to go through a few issues with our members. They were confused, but they were very receptive and left full sure that they had correctly handled the new directive. We feel we have it sorted now."

It was little wonder that the referees met to clear the confusion. They had been applying wildly varying definitions of the rule. And after taking so much flak, maybe it was inevitable they would relax the rule as the season went on, even if Curley is adamant that is not the case.

"No it's not," he insists. "We watched video clips of controversial incidents from the opening seven matches in Munster, Leinster and Ulster and talked through the various scenarios together -- it cleared things up a lot. We're all on singing off the one hymn sheet now, that's all."

But those who feel that referees are turning a blind eye to a lot of illegal passes won't be told otherwise. "I watched Meath and Laois last weekend and Kerry and Cork, and so much was left go," says Evans. "I think that's the attitude now from players and manager anyway -- please let it go away, let this handpass thing be done and dusted for once and for all."

Either way, the whole fuss has more or less died away. For the time being anyway. Hard to believe it caused such mutiny within the Association just six weeks ago.

Sunday Independent

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