By his own admission Michael Cleary doesn't watch a lot of matches anymore. The former Tipperary All-Ireland winner did, however, take in a couple of club fixtures recently, and was wondering why they were more interesting for the spectator than the intercounty equivalent.
He concluded that the reduced amount of hand-passing in club hurling made for better entertainment. It’s been a bone of contention for a while, the number of hand-passes in defiance of the rules that are nonetheless allowed in matches, especially intercounty.
“This is not an ex-hurler saying that things were better in our day,” says Cleary. “Absolutely not. The players have never been as skilful and club players now are probably where we were at intercounty 20 years ago in terms of skills. But people generally accept that the game has lost some of its appeal.
“Players are good but there’s no risking possession or tussling for the ball. They go from A to B to C to D and score.
"There were two county finals I watched and thoroughly enjoyed, in Kilkenny and Tipperary. I think it's fair to say that club players while very good aren't at the level of county players, so I wonder are the more astute managers saying to keep it simple, get the ball 'route one' to a large extent.
“It turned out two very entertaining games. There was very little playing through the lines and coming off the shoulder and that type of thing. I call it ‘early noughties’ hurling and it’s tremendously enjoyable with a lot of contesting the ball.”
A valid pass is meant to feature two distinct movements, a “release” and a “striking action”. Instead intercounty matches frequently showcase transfers that are effectively “throws”, which are prohibited under rule in both football and hurling.
The result of this is that possession is more easily retained and there are fewer contests for the ball – the very thing that made hurling more attractive than football with its short passing and passages of keep-ball.
This has been the subject of a long-standing campaign by Cleary's fellow All-Ireland-winning county man Conor O'Donovan. He has been highlighting the fact that hand-passing is not being executed according to the book, and has been in touch with the authorities in Croke Park advocating a specific remedy.
He proposes that a player should not be allowed to play the ball away with the same hand that is holding it. This involves switching the hurl to the other hand, what O’Donovan calls “the changeover grip or tapping the ball off the hurl and playing it away with either hand”.
He has also submitted video clips to illustrate his proposal by showing players executing proper hand-passes and also demonstrating the changeover grip.
“It would eliminate the rucks,” he says about the frequent and unsightly rooting for the ball. “Players wouldn’t be stopping to roll-lift the ball on the basis that if they get surrounded they can just offload it. Similarly players running into tackles, who are looking for frees, don’t mind if they don’t get them because they can toss the ball to a runner off their shoulder.
“If that isn’t available they’ll think twice about running into tackles. Players are very adaptable. Hurlers who aren’t throwing the ball in today’s game are putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage.”
This has had an effect although not quite what O'Donovan is suggesting. The Rules Advisory Committee is in the process of informing counties that the rule will be implemented in the new year as opposed to being revised.
An analysis of 25 of this year’s intercounty activity revealed that around 2,200 hand-passes were recorded in the league and championship matches surveyed but just nine of them were penalised.
According to a study on the Tipperary website Premierview, two-thirds of the hand-passes in the All-Ireland semi-finals and final were throws, with champions Limerick the most conspicuous offenders.
Kilkenny are acknowledged by O’Donovan and by the above findings as the least likely to break the rule. Four-times All-Ireland referee Barry Kelly is in agreement.
"The ones who execute it properly the most are Kilkenny. I think a lot of it is down to the handball influence. If you look at TJ (Reid), it's text book and Richie Hogan can strike it 40 yards and Pádraig Walsh. It's almost like in tennis - ball goes up and is hit. But the more teams playing a possession game, they want to move it on quickly and it's split second."
Proponents of change are sensitive to the charge of being anti-Limerick, and O’Donovan points out that he was publicly advocating his idea pre-championship in 2018, before the current Limerick team even won an All-Ireland. This is a matter of implementing rules, he argues.
Kelly believes that the matter is something that can be dealt with on the field.
“The only ones who can solve this are the referees. No doubt about it. You talk to intercounty referees and it’s in their games that you’re seeing it. Players are being coached just to release and not release and strike. There are two parts to it and these days, the ‘strike’ part is gone.
“I’ve had former colleagues on to me, saying, ‘ah you’re a great fella – preaching what you didn’t practise!’ But I’ve said that now the secondary competitions are back, they’re the ideal place to do this. If referees clamped down by the second or third Sunday of the league you’d get results.”
How did he feel about the issue when he was refereeing? Was he conscious that he was letting fouls go?
“I finished in ‘17 and it wasn’t the epidemic it is now. My last All-Ireland was in 2014 and there was plenty of contests for the ball and it was man-on-man with no sweepers.”
He also empathises with officials because taking a stand on the enforcement of the rule won’t be popular at first.
“My own view is that a referee who allows 20 foul hand-passes may still be said to have had a good match because he did everything else right.
“But if he blows a hand-pass in the first 10 minutes, half the crowd is on his back. Referees go out not to be noticed. I did myself and if you weren’t noticed you had a great game but it mightn’t have been technically. You blow early on and the managers are on your case and then probably the players as well.”
If the desired crackdown on hand-passing doesn’t have the desired effect it will be back to the drawing board for the rules-makers.
Cleary, who cites how enjoyable the internationals against Scottish shinty players were because the compromise rules didn’t allow any handling, has an even more radical take on the problem: ban the hand-pass altogether.
“It would make it easier for referees, who have to decided what’s a throw and what isn’t. I feel sorry for them. If the hand-pass is a blight on the game, which I believe it is, why not trial a ban on hand-passing? See where it takes us. Hurling evolves all the time, but we have to keep it in good stead.”