The GAA rule book and the Bible have much in common. They are both significant tomes, both subject to much debate and often argument, and both are used, by some, to hide behind when it suits them. And both are extremely difficult publications to get amended. It might be easier to get a new chapter written into Deuteronomy than it is to amend the Official Guide of the Gaelic Athletic Association.
What changes we have seen to the rules governing Gaelic games in recent years seem to have been forced upon the Association by the analysts on The Sunday Game rather than as a result of considered debate on how best to improve our games.
With rule changes so slow in coming, and so difficult to get passed at congress, one wonders why the GAA does not implement the rules that it does have, rather than ones it does not. Something is going to have to be done about the hand pass in the game of hurling.
In both All-Ireland hurling semi-finals and the final itself, not a single free was given for an infringement of the hurling hand pass rule. Not one. Despite clear and obvious violations of this rule being evident to all. And, an unwillingness to implement this rule is not confined to senior inter-county hurling games, not a single free was awarded for an illegal handpass at the South Tipperary Senior Hurling final either. It has gotten to the stage that, if a referee were brave enough to actually implement the rules of the game as documented in the Official Guide, then players and supporters would surely be up in arms at a lack of consistency. And so it is ignored.
Players, management and supporters are culpable too. They have acquiesced meekly. They have accepted this new normal. They have accepted The Sunday Game narrative which tells us that it is a new skill, that the game is faster now. Nothing to see here, please move along. Non-hurling people wouldn’t understand. But all ‘hurling people’ do understand and a lot of them want change.
Yes, the game is evolving quickly and the illegal handpass (or thrown ball) has become an integral part of the new style of play that has brought much success to Limerick and has helped Cork back to the top table in hurling. But all counties infringe when it comes to that handpass, Tipperary included.
And as long as they continue to get away with it, they will continue to do so. And this column is not anti-Limerick, nor should it be read as mean spirited to a fine hurling team and worthy All Ireland Champions. But Limerick provide some excellent examples of where the game is right now and how we have gotten here.
The handpass rule in hurling is covered in Rule 4 of the Rules of Foul Play (Technical Fouls) in the Official Guide. Rule 4.2 states that it is a foul to either a. ‘throw the ball’ or b.’ to handpass the ball without it being released and struck with a definite striking action of the hand.’ So let us look at two goals from the latter stages of this year’s All Ireland Championship. Limerick would have won the semi final against Waterford even without the goal scored by Aaron Gillane. But look back at the ‘hand-pass’ that fed him the ball from Gearoid Hegarty. That was not in keeping with rule 4.2 above.
There was no clear striking action and, to my mind, the ball was thrown. Look also at the first Limerick goal in the All Ireland Final. Cian Lynch does brilliantly to break the tackle and feeds the ball to Gearoid Hegarty who buries it. The goal didn’t define the game nor did it decide it. But the breach of the hand pass rule was blatant. And blatant transgressions would continue by both sides throughout the 70 minutes.
Should Fergal Horgan, the referee, have intervened? Had he done so, he would have had to visit both dressing rooms beforehand and explain what he would accept and what he wouldn’t accept. To do so would have been a de facto rule change mid competition. The fact that the hand pass rule has been so wildly ignored by the great and the good of the Association meant that Horgan could not take it upon himself, in an All-Ireland Final, to reverse the new normal and actually implement the rules as they are written down. An impossible position for him and his colleagues who referee at the highest level and those who referee our club games every weekend and without whom we would have no games at all.
So, if the rule is impossible to implement then the rule has to change. Nicky English wrote recently that Limerick, Cork and Waterford were the leading exponents of the new orthodoxy. He describes how this new hurling strategy evolved out of third level institutions, was road tested in the Fitzgibbon Cup and possibly got its first national airing in Clare’s All Ireland success in 2013. People now talk about ‘total hurling’ likening it to the Dutch style of football played in the 1970’s by Johann Cruyff and masterminded by Rinus Michels. In a nutshell, it describes a system of play, in which any outfield player can take over the position and role of any other player in a team. A back can become a forward and vice versa. And no one does it better than Limerick.
The modern game of hurling has seen an increased emphasis on possession. Working the ball through the lines etc. And in order to execute that game plan effectively and efficiently, speed is of the essence. You can defend that strategy by crowding the middle third of the field as Tipperary did so effectively in the first half of the Munster final this year. But when Limerick up the tempo, as they did in the second half of that final, few teams can live with them. Their possession game feeds off the hand pass and that hand pass is executed at pace and with precision. The ‘definite striking of the ball’ as prescribed in rule 4.2 cannot be executed at pace and with the necessary precision and so the hand pass has been adulterated in order to fit into the new orthodoxy.
Again, this is not a cut against Limerick. They are, in a way, defining how hurling will be played for the next ten years and that is a fitting tribute to this group of players. But they are doing so outside of the rules. If the hand pass rule was implemented correctly, it would slow down teams like Limerick, Waterford and Cork. It would make them easier to play against. It would make them easier to defend against. But a rule change is not necessary in order to stop the Limerick juggernaut. It is necessary to preserve the integrity of the game. It is necessary to show that we do not apply the rules on an a la carte basis. Enforcing some and discarding others. A rule that has become unimplementable is a rule that needs to be changed to the new hurling orthodoxy.
On our Extra Time Program last Monday night, Conor O’Donovan and Eddie Keher spoke of their frustration with the hand pass rule in hurling. Conor, to his credit, doesn’t just identify a problem, he follows his argument up with a solution. His, is to amend rule 4.2 to incorporate a sub clause that in a hand pass the ball cannot be struck from the same hand that is carrying the ball. So if you are holding the sliotar in you left hand and the hurley in your right hand, a new hand pass rule would require you to release the sliotar with your left hand and strike it with your right hand. This would be very easy for referees to observe and enforce and would apply clarity to the opaque nature of the current law. Are there possible unforeseen consequences to this proposal.
Of course there are, especially rule 4.8 with prohibits ‘dropping the hurley intentionally’, which is a probable consequence of asking a player to release with one hand and hand pass with the other. But it would be something new, a step in the right direction surely? Another alternative is to prohibit hand passing altogether. This would be radical but remember that up to the 1960’s it was permissible to hand pass the ball to the net to score a goal in hurling. That rule, thankfully, has been abolished, but to prohibit the handpass altogether would cause more bunching and rucks and the holding of the hurley as defenders would crowd a player in possession and prevent them playing the sliotar off their hurley.
I wish Conor well in his crusade, but as stated earlier, change comes, dropping slowly, within the corridors of Croke Park. The fact that he has lasted this long on this particular mission is testament to how strongly held it is within a sizable proportion of the hurling family.
Space in this column does not allow me to develop a further point, but I will leave this with you. How was Peter Casey allowed to play in this year’s All Ireland final? Rule 5.16 of the official guide prohibits the following ‘ to strike or to attempt to strike an opponent with minimal force. Rule 5.27 cites an infringement as ‘to strike or attempt to strike an opponent with the head.’
Readers can make up their own minds but in so doing please remember the ‘infringement’ that cost Brian O’Meara a place in our All Ireland final success of 2001. And also the fact that he took his punishment for fear that any action through the courts might distract from the teams preparation.
Justice should always be done and as importantly, be seen to be done. In public. It behoves the GAA to explain all of its decisions so that the application of all of the rules of the game are observed, in a public forum
Some aspects of the hurling rule book are no longer fit for purpose and need wise men and women to oversee amendments. To quote Deuteronomy, choose some wise, understanding and respected (wo)men from each of your tribes. And let’s get to work.
Join Ronan Quirke each and every Monday night at 7pm for Extra Time on TippFM.