As the Football Championship commenced with another non-event in Munster, up north it was grim indeed as Armagh and Derry engaged in a free-ridden game of hand-passing and suffocation by numbers. Football, to give it its modern-day misnomer, needs a serious rethink, not tinkering. The Irish sporting public is becoming ever-more expectant in terms of what it’s prepared to pay to watch — and old certainties will fall by the wayside unless Gaelic ups its game.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Look at how Waterford and Limerick went at it in the Division 4 League final: end-to-end, carefree stuff; two teams relishing the opportunity to play at headquarters.
However, when it comes to the championship the mindset is: don’t lose at all costs. Possession is the name of the game and so managers resort to mass defence and short fist-passes, more often that not backwards or sideways, what with no space to exploit in the final third, or in many cases, the entire opposition half.
It makes for an awful spectacle, until that rare occasion — e.g. Kerry against Dublin last year — when a team cuts loose.
Once this season is over the authorities really are going to have to look at the hand-passing problem. Restricting its use to two successive passes could be considered. Though a referee would need eyes in the back of his head to police it. Outlawing its use between the two 45s is what I’d propose, thereby forcing defenders to kick clear/to a colleague rather than ‘working’ the ball upfield ‘softball’ style.
The focus of people’s anger since the weekend has been the interpretation of the new hand-pass rule which came into effect at midnight on Saturday. It requires players to show a definite underhand striking action to transfer possession.
“This is a massive change in a skill that the players have been practising for the last 15 years, and suddenly they hear about it two weeks before the championship,” claimed Kerry boss Jack O’Connor, while his Tipp counterpart John Evans described the rule-makers as “intelligent fools.”
It’s a populist stance to condemn those who introduce change, particularly pernickety ones. But it’s misguided on two fronts. The issue shouldn’t be the type of hand-pass but the sheer amount of them in the contemporary game.
It’s by no means an Ulster phenomenon but its flag bearers have refined the ‘art’ and their success over the past decade has obviously encouraged other counties to copy it. As O’Connor said, they’ve been practising this “skill” for the past 15 years.
According to the BBC Northern Ireland website’s GAA coaching section, “If you can master the hand pass then you are a long way down the road to getting the basics of Gaelic football right.”
Getting them horribly wrong more like.