GAA Football

Kicking Out: Handpass limit has to go - but it leaves lessons learned for future attempts

The application of the handpass limit caught referee Ciaran Branagan out during Tyrone's win over Derry on Sunday despite the official's best efforts to help guide players through it. The rule seems doomed ahead of Saturday's Central Council meeting. Picture by Philip Walsh.

A VIDEO released yesterday by Derry’s video analyst Ben McGuckin showed the struggle that referee Ciaran Branagan endured in the Oak Leafers’ defeat by Tyrone on Sunday.

It shows four clips. In the first of them, he whistles against Derry while they’re 30 yards from the Tyrone goal, trying to work a shot. It was only the second consecutive handpass when he blew the free.

In a very similar attacking position later in the first half, he blows again on what is the first handpass of the sequence, with the victim Sammy Bradley having collected the ball from a kick pass.

The other two instances show Branagan failing to blow the fourth consecutive handpass, on both occasions going on to award frees from which Tyrone scored.

Branagan actually spent the day trying to aid the players by counting the handpasses out loud for them. But he is only human. And so there were occasions when he either missed the fourth handpass, or blew it too soon in a bid to keep pace with the new rule.

Put yourself in a referee’s mind for a moment.

The ball’s kicked out. Maybe the ball didn’t travel far enough on its way out so you need an eye on that. If it’s kicked long you have to determine whether there’s a foul. Then someone catches it and you remember about the mark.

From there, what’s happening in front of the ball.

“Is the full-back hanging out of young McGuigan? Aghhh, where’s the ball again, I need to see if the kick-pass travels 20 metres for the attacking mark,” you think.

You’ll be 40 soon and these whippets running past you are finely tuned athletic machines half your age.

And then they ask you to count the handpasses as well.

This column cannot be hypocritical. I am in favour of trying to implement change to Gaelic football, and I’ve repeatedly defended the rules trials since they were announced in October.

But it would only be a very blinkered individual that would continue to beat his head off the wall when the blood’s already pouring down his nose.

Central Council simply cannot write the handpass limit into law for the National League.

The trial has been wholly successful in one sense - at least we know now the idea is unworkable. And at the cheap cost of a series of glorified challenge games, trying it ought to have been far removed from the language of outrage.

There are those who would always have argued, rightly, that the handpass has become the most effective tool there is to chisel a way through in attack.

The evidence base is considerable, given that scoring rates have continued to increase despite the frequency of teams packing their whole 15 men inside their own 45’ plotting the same curve.

Annually improved scoring rates have been the game’s saviour since 2011.

Modern coaching is given a bad rap but imagine that it was so lacking in attacking innovation that nobody had found anything that counter-acted the heavily-manned barricades that are routinely set up in front of goal.

What we’d have had in that scenario would be unthinkably bad.

It is too early for a deeper statistical analysis of what impact the handpass limit would have on scoring rates, but early indications are that it would be a negative one.

Twitter statistics guru @dontfoul tallied up the goals scored up to and including the finals in the four pre-season competitions. They dropped to just 84 (an average of two per game) this year, from 113 (average 2.4) last year.

The average number of points per game also dropped, although neither fell as far as the low 2016 levels, which highlights that the full picture has not yet been drawn.

But the evidence of our eyes suggests that, once we step into the National League and the games are generally all between teams of a similar level and therefore close by nature, the scoring rates will indeed drop.

The heart’s desire is not just to watch one score after the other. If it was, we could just have a 70-minute free-taking competition, which is not all that far removed from what some games have become.

There is equal validity in the criticism that the methods of score-building are not exactly pleasing on the eye.

Defence lines up with 15 men. Attack’s full-forward line comes out on the loop. They line up on the 45’. Runners from deep try to find a gap. Handpass into the gap. Forward either shoots, gets fouled or is turned over. Eat, sleep, rave, repeat.

What January’s trials have shown is that you cannot restrict the team in possession without first drilling down into the core of why they do what they do.

Why don’t teams kick the ball to their forwards? Because there’s no space to kick it into.

It would be hugely imbalanced to allow the defensive team to go on eating up every square inch in the scoring zone while forcing the outnumbered team with the ball to kick it in there.

Before any future restriction can be placed on what the attacking side are allowed to do, you have to place one on the defensive team.

Ironically, the subtle positive impacts being made by the other changes have been buried beneath the tidal wave of negativity around the handpass.

The black card is a more fitting punishment now in that it acts as a genuine deterrent.

There’s also the kickout rule. When the convoluted idea of only allowing two men from each side to be stationed between the two 45s was dropped, most people went back to thinking the earth was just as round as it had been.

But the success of short kickouts has always been in their speed.

In last year’s All-Ireland final, the only two kickouts Dublin lost were timed at 17 and 18 seconds respectively from the ball going dead to it leaving Stephen Cluxton’s boot.

His average for the day was just under 13 seconds, and six times he got his kick away in under 11 seconds.

Compare that with Niall Morgan who, having nailed the first five, then saw Dublin take three-in-a-row off him. On those three, it took 25, 28 and 22 seconds to get the ball out.

Under the new rule, the ball will be kicked from the 20-metre line rather than the 13’.

The extra few seconds it takes the goalkeeper to cover that distance, allied with the seven yards fewer the opposition will have to traverse to get up the field, has shown early green shoots of having the desired effect of more contested restarts.

That rule, the sin bin and the attacking mark are all sure to stay, while the sideline rule might make it, having been less offensive than was originally prescribed.

But there is no choice on the handpass limit. It has to go.

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