This time, manager outrage is justified
Question: how do you know the championship is officially up and running? Answer: when the first eruption of controversy leaves us all covered in a metaphorical plume of volcanic ash.
This perennial onslaught of May madness struck with predictable vigour on Sunday when the football championship enjoyed its real 2010 launch (apologies to Galway and New York) -- and quickly descended to levels of farce for a number of reasons, but primarily because of this latest new handpass rule.
When is a handpass not a handpass? That is the sixty-four million dollar question.
By now, many of you will have watched The Sunday Game Live and the highlights show later that evening, so you're probably aware that a footballer can play the ball away with either (a) the fist or (b) the open hand(s) "provided it involves a definite underhand striking action".
You might even surmise that this sounds relatively straight-forward. The match-time reality, of course, is anything but. How many times is the referee's view of the striking motion -- alleged or otherwise -- impeded? How many times does the player handpass the ball away so quickly that the referee cannot be sure if it was a legitimate striking action or not?
And, more to the point, how many times in the coming weeks will a close-fought championship match be decided by one of these borderline refereeing decisions that -- on video review -- is shown to be blatantly wrong?
As an exasperated Jack O'Connor predicted on Sunday evening: "Somewhere down the line there's going to be a critical call that's going to cost a team a match and all hell is going to break loose."
The Kerry manager was speaking from a position of relative comfort, having watched his team win by 12 points. But imagine if Tipperary had actually sneaked an improbable victory, aided by two highly debatable handpass calls that went against Kerrymen during the first half.
For the first, Bryan Sheehan was punished for an illegal handpass even though the replay suggested it was legitimate -- and Tipp duly countered from the resultant quick free to score their opening goal.
For the second, Kieran Donaghy was called back for another illegal handpass even though he was adamant that he had fisted the ball to Sheehan (who duly goalled after the whistle had gone). Again, the video seemed to support Kerry's contention.
This should not be deemed an attack on David Coldrick or indeed on the overall body of referees who have been left in a near-impossible position following this latest rule shift. However, if we're to go on the initial evidence of Sunday's three SFC encounters in Semple Stadium, Celtic Park and O'Moore Park, then players will have to greatly exaggerate the striking action when next they attempt to locate a team-mate via the hand.
And the problem here, of course, is that these very players have spent their entire careers practising this fundamental skill and now -- hey presto! -- they are expected to change tack because a Connacht Council motion was passed at Congress last month.
We can already imagine the official party line: playing rule changes can only be altered every five years; this was just such a year; the motion was debated at Congress and passed; teams were duly informed -- so what's the problem?
The problem is this: one of genuine consultation and communication, or rather a lack thereof. These very players have spent all spring adjusting to an experimental rule whereby you could only handpass with a closed fist. Whether you agreed with the rule or not -- and this particular experiment looked doomed from an early stage -- at least the players knew the score.
The handpass alteration suffered predictable defeat at Congress. But then another motion on the Clár (No23, from our friends in the west) was passed. The new underhand edict seems to have slipped under the radar of the media (mea culpa!), while managers were queuing up on Sunday to slam the tardiness and alleged lack of clarity from Croke Park in communicating this rule change to the people that count -- ie, the players.
Now, never let this column be seen to jump on the managerial bandwagon, given team bosses' endless capacity for carping and their tendency to view every little rule-tinkering from a position of thinly disguised self-interest. But, on this particular issue, the managers are justified and not alone in their outrage.
You shouldn't dabble with one handpass experiment throughout spring and then suddenly slip in a different one for the summer without any trial run. Just because the decision was 'democratically' reached doesn't make it logical, either, while the bigger issue of how said democracy works must be called into question when you've got a gargantuan 123 motions on the same weekend Congress agenda.
Maybe it all boils down to the fact that some administrators can't abide all this handpassing and want to eradicate it, by any means possible. But the message from last weekend is simple: be careful what you wish for.