'Throwing' epidemic needs to be tackled - O'Donovan
Hurling's stock may never have been higher after the most competitive All-Ireland championship in history, but a serious rule malfunction is threatening to undermine the game.
That's the view of Conor O'Donovan, former Tipperary All-Ireland-winning full-back, who is adamant that illegal handpassing has become so endemic it frequently outnumbers correct transfers.
"It's gone past a joke. Players are openly throwing the ball and getting away with it. I'm not blaming the referees. It's an impossible task for them to decide on every handpass in such a fast-moving game," he said.
"Players and coaches know that, so they'll push the boundaries as far as possible. That leads to more throwing, which isn't exactly a skill.
"Everyone knows what's going on, but there seems to be little or no analysis of handpassing. There needs to be because what we have now is taking away from the great game."
The rulebook states that a handpass is legal when the ball is "released and struck with a definite striking action of the hand". In effect, it means that there must be a gap between ball and hand before the pass is made.
O'Donovan, who was part of the Tipperary revival under 'Babs' Keating that led to them winning Munster and All-Ireland titles in the late 1980s, compiled a number of 'throwing' examples this year and says that they were merely representative samples from an extensive list.
"Everyone who watches hurling could draw up their own list. It's not exactly hard to find them, seeing that they're happening all the time. And since players are getting away with it at inter-county level, it has spread to the club scene and to camogie too," he said.
O'Donovan highlights one example from late in the Tipperary-Clare Munster 'round robin' game last June, which may have changed the course of the championship.
Tipperary sub Jake Morris hit the Clare post at a time when his side were leading by four points. Clare counter-attacked and sub Ian Galvin scored a goal, which they followed up with match-winning points.
"The big talking point was what would have happened if Morris had scored a goal," added O'Donovan.
"But what happened immediately afterwards was just as important. Look back on the re-run and it's clear that John Conlon threw the ball to Podge Collins, who set up Galvin for the Clare goal.
"Good luck to Conlon, we'd all do the same if we thought we'd get away with it, but he should have been penalised. I'm not using this example just because Tipperary were involved but to show how a game can be changed by an illegal pass," said O'Donovan.
He believes that the emphasis on the retaining possession, using short handpasses, has led to the growth in illegal transfers as referees cannot monitor them all the time. He is surprised that referees haven't explained that to the GAA authorities in order to prompt a review of the rule.
"With retaining possession now seen as so important, handpassing is much more common than it used to be. A player who moves the ball on a few yards to a colleague will have good stats at the end, but there's more to the game than that.
"People say hurling has never been faster but I don't think that's actually true. There's certainly more running in the game but the ball isn't moving as fast because of all the handpassing.
"That's fine if the handpasses are legal but they're not. That's clear to everyone. It's the big elephant in the room but for some strange reason there seems to be no desire to deal with it," said O'Donovan.
His proposed solution is to change the rule so that the pass must be completed with the hand not holding the ball.
"If you have the ball in the left hand, you have to palm it with the right hand and vice versa. That would make it easy for referees and would cut out the throwing.
"Using the changeover grip is a very basic skill. We saw a good example of it late on in the Ballygunner-Ballyea game last Sunday when Pauric Mahony was set up for a point," said O'Donovan.
Willie Barrett, chairman of the National Referees' Development Committee, told the Irish Independent last August that there was no question of referees ignoring illegal handpasses as a means of keeping the play flowing.
"Absolutely not, but the problem is that the player in possession is often ahead of the referee so it can be very difficult to judge the legality of the pass. He can only penalise a player if he's 100 per cent sure," said Barrett.
O'Donovan accepts that referees are in a difficult position, which is why he wants the rule changed.
"Throwing the ball has no part in hurling but it's there and needs to be addressed," he said.