News that the GAA had set up a work group to deliberate on the handpass in hurling confirmed the prominence of the issue in the game and amongst followers.
The point at which the prescribed method – “a definite striking action of a hand” – becomes a throw and therefore a technical foul has become so hard to determine that a leading referee concedes that, half the time, the handpass can’t be seen properly so players have to get the benefit of the doubt.
When the definite striking action might be no more than a flexing of hand tendons, as a fast handpassing sequence builds up a head of steam, such agnosticism is inevitable.
The Standing Committee on the Playing Rules (SCPR) has become an increasingly influential resource for Gaelic games. Whereas those interested in football and hurling can form impressions of deficiencies in the games, the SCPR engages in review, report and recommendation.
As a process it can be slow but the priority is deliberation on data-based evidence and the trialling of new ideas to address any identified problems. The committee’s output has sometimes been controversial and sometimes the familiar hard sell when expertise meets Congress delegates but it is always reasoned and based on research.
SCPR chair, Professor David Hassan spoke to The Irish Times this week and acknowledged that the noise surrounding the issue of the handpass had become audible and that a working group, including four-times All-Ireland referee Barry Kelly and Clare dual player Podge Collins, had been established.
“In the past five years since 2018, we have seen – as have most people – very significant changes in how the game is played.
“I’ll give you some evidence. In the past five years there has been a 40 per cent increase in the number of handpasses in intercounty hurling. Last season there was an average of 99 per game and I’ve no doubt that this year that number will go beyond 100.
“So, firstly, there is a very significant increase in the incidence of handpasses, principally as a means of retaining possession. In the same vein the number of pass backs to the goalkeeper has risen three-fold in that period so that’s a significantly rising use of the goalkeeper in open play.
“Having mentioned the goalkeeper, 30 per cent of all puck-outs are going to a player inside the defensive 45. Those statistics are the context; how the game is now played is significantly different.”
Former Tipperary All-Ireland hurler Conor O’Donovan has been a tireless advocate of reform in respect of the hurling handpass. He has circulated videos of his preferred option – that the hand holding the ball cannot be the hand that plays it away – together with demonstrations of how this is achieved.
His club Nenagh Éire Óg proposed adding a subsection to the rule forbidding technically deficient disposals with the hand, as follows:
(c) To handpass or palm the ball direct from the same hand that is holding the ball.
Tipperary annual convention failed narrowly to support the amendment.
O’Donovan represents those who dislike the aesthetics of a sliotar being thrown around as well as the ethically difficult situation whereby breaking or failing to observe rules confers benefit on the transgressor.
Much focus has been on the game’s top team, Limerick, whose tactics of moving the ball at pace through the lines of the team mean that they utilise a lot of passing with both stick and hand.
Some of the handpasses are textbook but others definitely come into the category of being so fast that immediate judgement with the naked eye is impossible.
James Owens is a three-time All-Ireland final referee. He says that, in a lot of cases, match officials are essentially flying blind and ultimately can’t blow up something that they’re only guessing has happened.
“Most of the time, you mightn’t see the action itself so you have to give the player the benefit of the doubt.”
He and colleagues would like to see a more demanding definition of what constitutes separation of hand and ball.
“Yeah, something like four to six inches or whatever. At the moment, if the ball moves half an inch from the hand before being struck, that’s okay. The rule states, ‘definite’ striking action but I think it’s too vague to be policed properly.
“When we have our referees’ meetings, we’d have discussed the handpass and how do we police this? Even only two inches would provide a gap, proving the release and strike. It’s so quick now a referee doesn’t pick up half of them – doesn’t even see them.
“A lot are close-body – the hand isn’t extended when executing. The player is protecting what he’s doing by shielding the ball. That’s why you don’t see most of them; if you don’t see it, you can’t blow it.”
Does it matter that much? There is a two-way debate on the desirability of change.
Séamus “Cheddar” Plunkett is well known for his tours of duty as manager of his county, Laois’s, hurling team as well as for engagement with club sides.
He strongly argues that the handpass is an inevitable part of the game’s evolution and its legitimacy should be left up to referees to adjudicate – accepting that they can’t possibly get them all right – and let everyone get on with it.
“The issue is, hurling is a very quick game. Are you going to pick out every handpass to adjudicate if it’s technically correct? Clearly the game has sped up. If you look at GAA Gold from the 1950s and ‘60s, great decades for hurling and look at the difference in speed. You’re expecting someone to referee maybe 100 rules and get all of these right all of the time.
“I do think in the last number of years there has been a lot of handpasses that weren’t valid and I think they were let go to keep the pace of the game flowing.”
Plunkett believes that all field games evolve towards the possession-based and for all the traditionalist hankering after the old virtues of the game, it’s a simple choice between the thrills of old-school tactics and the prospects of success.
“That type of hurling [old school] has its limitations. You hold on to the ball and don’t give it away and you’ve a much better chance of winning the match.
“High balls into the square, dust flying, breaking ball, people jumping and being turned upside down and all of that is what excites people but it doesn’t win games.
“Imagine if one of the teams this weekend decided not to play a possession game and, for the sake of argument with one team doing that, the other decides to play organised hurling with still plenty of room for off-the-cuff, intuitive play. There’s no doubt which team wins.”
Professor Hassan says that the work group is tasked with reporting by the end of the summer, with the evidence of this year’s championship assisting deliberations. He says there are two sides to the debate but that handpassing encourages the possession game and removes the element of contest from the game.
“There is a group strongly of the view that we need to change the rule and equally a group who are perfectly content to let referees make the call under the current rule. Inevitably there is a distribution of views.
“You’re also seeing a general de-risking of the game. If we go back further, there are aspects of hurling from 15 years ago that have just disappeared in how the game is played currently.
“Another interesting trend we have seen in hurling in recent times is the number of shots being taken from a team’s own half. Last season 15 per cent of all shots in intercounty hurling were taken from that position half but as recently as 2019, that figure was 10 per cent so we’re seeing the importance of players being able to retain possession even in that sector.”
He cautions that rule changes need careful consideration because of their effects on what he calls “the ecosystem” of the game, which is impacted by the consequences, intended or otherwise, of fundamental rule change.
“I know the appointment of the work group inevitably raises expectations about a rule change but the recommendations may be short of that – for instance a strengthening of the current wording or the trialling of some potential alternatives.
“We’ve shown in the past that we have no difficulty with trialling rules if that’s a conclusion but all options will be considered by the working group.”