GIVEN that the issue is largely to do with the men in the middle and how they apply — or not — the rules of the game, let’s start with a former All-Ireland referee.
A couple of years ago Barry Kelly was watching TG4’s All-Ireland Gold when he saw something that stayed with him. One of those memorable goals from the past that make the viewer think, yes, it really was a different sport back then. The scorer was Tony Doran and the goal a handpassed effort, as was all the rage in the mid-1970s.
Except Doran, the high king of the genre, didn’t so much palm the sliotar to the net as — well, what’s the appropriate verb? Boxed it to the net? Handballed it to the net?
Whatever one’s choice of language, it was definitely a handpass. A clear striking action, a visible connection of palm to ball. As a goal it wouldn’t and couldn’t be seen today.
As an example of a handpass, however, it was textbook — and was exactly the kind of handpass that is rarely seen today, an era in which, as Kelly points out, players “are just literally releasing the ball”.
Precisely when the trend emerged is unclear, but for the past three or four years it’s been screamingly obvious that a large percentage of inter-county players are throwing the ball rather than handpassing it.
It began as a reaction to developments in strength and conditioning:A player gets bottled up, can’t bustle his way out through two or three bulky opponents and has no option but to rid himself of the sliotar any old way.
Noel O’Donoghue is another former All-Ireland referee (1980 and ’82, for the benefit of the kids) and now a referees administrator. He went to a National League match last Sunday in which two handpasses were whistled up, both of them “very obvious” transgressions.
The real question is this. How many of the other 20 or 30 handpasses in the match — and in every other fixture on the opening weekend of the new National League — were illegal without being quite so flagrant and were allowed stand? Heaven knows.
Referees, O’Donoghue asserts, are “inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the player making the handpass”, a statement with which there can be no arguing.
Kelly has a nice analogy. A modern hurling referee is like a member of the Garda traffic corps, except the latter possesses the technology to distinguish between a motorist driving at 49mph and a motorist driving at 51mph.
A referee has no such assistance in trying to differentiate between the player who gets a couple of centimetres of backlift into it and the player who throws the ball.
To our third and most recent All-Ireland referee, James Owens. Echoing O’Donoghue he estimates that “90% of the time” the referee will give the benefit of the doubt to the handpasser.
And why not? Deciding what constitutes a striking motion is difficult, as Owens scarcely needs to point out.
A perfect line of vision doesn’t always exist, given the press of bodies in the mosh pit surrounding the man in possession and impeding the ref’s view. When Alan Kelly penalised TJ Reid for that throw in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final he could plead in mitigation the presence of four other players in and around the sliotar.
Dónal Óg Cusack treated viewers of the Sunday Game to a thoughtful exegesis of the issue last week, deeming his old friend the use of the spare hand to be the source problem.
Player in possession is impeded by spare hand of opponent; player is forced to slow down; player is cornered by two or three opponents and pressurised; player, with the clock ticking, fires the ball away; crowd see it and grumble; referee may not.
Not that the dubious handpass is exclusively an item of last resort, of course. Teams playing a running game could not operate without it.
Don’t doubt that the various backroom boys have done their sums and calculated that if the speed of the release creates a scoring opportunity, or the assist for the assist, then being blown once or twice per match is a price worth paying.
Clamping down on illegal handpassing is high on Croke Park’s to do list. Referees have been instructed to get tough over the coming weeks. Yet Croke Park in recent years has also told them to give consideration to a player bottled up by three or four opponents. This is close to oxymoronic.
The task of applying the rule without irritating spectators is a balance that refereeing administrators have long been keen to get right.
At one stage they went as far as discussing whether it would be preferable to blow early on for a corner forward throwing the ball (punishment: Free out) than for a cornerback doing the same (punishment: Free in, certain point).
They concluded that nothing short of a ref awarding five or six frees in the first 10 minutes would have the desired effect. Just imagine the howls from the stands, though.
Solutions? O’Donoghue believes it’s a coaching issue. “Coaches must coach players how to handpass properly.”
Quite, albeit not a course of action that will eradicate the problem in the short term.
Some GAA springtime controversies are exactly that: Springtime controversies. It’s a safe bet they’ll still be talking about illegal handpassing come high summer.
It started with the late Seamus Brennan’s advice to the Green Party in 2007. “You’re playing senior hurling now, lads!”
It continued with Phil Hogan, a man who at least possesses the requisite background, announcing he’ll be “playing ground hurling” against Donald Trump — a man who makes a lot of Americans want to hurl — in the EU/US trade talks.
It continued some more last weekend with Leo Varadkar, a man who does not possess the requisite background, reaching for his camán to frame the state of play for Fine Gael. “It’s at half-time, we’re about three points down, but politics is hurling, not soccer, and we’re going to pull this one back.”
Memo to election candidates: please stop. No more. We’re all hurling-metaphored out.
The Taoiseach’s flight of fancy got us thinking nevertheless. Who were the last team to win the All-Ireland after being three points down at half-time in the final? We got the other Leo — the real Leo; Leo McGough — to do some digging.
Happens it occurred as recently as 2015, when Kilkenny trailed Galway by 0-14 to 1-8 at the interval before turning it around on the resumption and winning by four.
Rather more interestingly, Leo discovered that the 1990s brought a raft of two-half deciders.
Cork (1990 and ’99), Offaly (’94 and ’98), Clare (’95 and ’97) and Kilkenny (’92) all came from behind at the break to lift the MacCarthy Cup.
Tús mall and all of that.
A spectator at Nowlan Park last Sunday was driven there by a native of eastern Europe long domiciled on Noreside.
So long domiciled, in fact, that he was able to discourse fluently on Ballyhale Shamrocks and their works.
“Imagine,” he mused, “if Kilkenny had all the Ballyhale lads. With Henry on the bench and managing. TJ is some player.”
Indeed. He’s as good a hurler as ever came out of Kilkenny.
“Yes, I have heard other people say that… [Long pause] But Kilkenny need three TJs.”
Out of the mouths of babes and taxi drivers from Slovakia.