Receiving exception

A stationary player receiving the ball is permitted to face in any direction.

On the face of it that is a banal statement, why wouldn’t a stationary player be able to face in any direction to receive the ball? The clue is in the fact that the statement is contained in the Obstruction Rule.

Does the statement mean that a moving player cannot be facing in any direction when receiving the ball? No, it does not, common practice indicates otherwise, so why are the words ‘stationary player’ used?

Perhaps it is because a stationary player in possession of the ball cannot be facing in any direction in all circumstances? Maybe, but what circumstances? There is no clue given about this in any other statement in the Explanation of Application, most of that is about moving to impose the body or stick between an opponent and the ball. There is obviously a different aspect of obstruction which is hidden, not clearly laid out in the text. This subtext to the Rule is indeed hidden.

Anyone who is familiar with the Rules of Hockey as they were published in 2003 (which will not be many current top level umpires as most are in their twenties or thirties) will be aware that, contained in prior Advice to Umpires, (which was deleted in its entirety in 2004), was the advice “Umpires should watch for players who stand still and shield the ball when under pressure” which meant that umpire should penalise such players, who would be in controlled possession of the ball, for obstruction.

So some (sic) new elements not mentioned in current Rule are introduced. 1) The shielding of the ball 2) from an opponent who is 3) putting pressure on the stationary player who is 4) shielding the ball i.e. the opponent is attempting to make a tackle for the ball and being prevented from doing so because the ball is shielded by the ball holders body or stick.

So a stationary player who is in the act of receiving and controlling the ball may be facing in any direction but, at least until the end of 2003, a stationary player who was in controlled possession of the ball (not in the act of receiving it) was not permitted to be facing in any direction – in fact a stationary player with an opponent in close attendance could only legally position so that he was facing in the general direction of his opponents base-line or goal and with the ball positioned to the front of his feet. In other positions, where he was not facing his opponents base-line and he was shielding the ball to prevent an opponent within reach of the ball from playing at it he would almost certainly be guilty of an obstruction offence – stationary or not.

So without a word of explanation an aspect of the Obstruction Rule was simply ‘disappeared’ in 2004. It is now common to see players ‘time running’ by taking the ball into a corner of the pitch and blocking off all attempts by opponents to play at it. They don’t even remain stationary while committing these fouls, which are based on the idea that a stationary player cannot obstruct an opponent – which is of course nonsense. The idea is an ‘interpretation’ of the current rule-book text which appeared ‘out of the blue’ and has become ‘accepted’. I see it as a game spoiler and will not accept it. Also included in that same advice to umpires was the advice to watch for players who lead the ball along a line while shielding it with their bodies, a tactic now commonly used by both attackers and defenders along the base-lines and sidelines of a pitch – and also for some years now, across the top of the opposition circle. How this action escapes sanction in the modern game is a mystery, but it does, it could be ‘interpretation creep’, because it certainly does creep. Team Coaches and players push their luck and umpires, for an easier life, do not push back as they should.

But how did we get to the stage where it was necessary for umpires to be advised in the rule book to watch for stationary players shielding and protecting the ball from opponents? To learn that we need to go back to the introduction of what in 1993 was called the New Interpretation of Obstruction (although it was not an interpretation at all but an exception to the Rule, because the interpretation of obstruction did not change in any way at all – all that changed was that a player receiving the ball was very temporarily not subject to the Obstruction Rule, temporarily being for as long as it took him to have the ball under control and be ready to move with it – generally less than one second. Then the instruction went on to say:-

Having collected the ball, the receiver must move away in any direction (except, of course, bodily into the tackler) or immediately pass the ball away.

That might seem relatively straightforward, but chaos immediately ensued, there being numerous umpire interpretations of “move away” vying with each other. They ranged from any movement away at any speed is acceptable, including weaving from side to side at walking pace, to the ball must be rapidly put and kept beyond the playing reach of any opponent intending to make a tackle, the latter version is the one I favour.

The current Rule 2023 states in Explanation of Application “

A player with the ball is permitted to move off with
it in any direction except bodily into an opponent
or into a position between the ball and an
opponent who is within playing distance of the
ball and attempting to play it.

Which is no different from the 1994 version about the nature the required(?) moving, because “is permitted to” means exactly the same as “may”, and neither mean ‘required’ – but I am getting ahead of myself.

Why do I favour the latter version? Because I was in Paris in 1991 at the European Championships and I witnessed the unveiling of the tactic upon which the 1993 Exception was based. The Final between Germany and the Netherlands (with Olympic Qualification for the winner). Paul Lissek’s team kept the tactic hidden until they played the Final match against the Netherlands. In soccer the tactic would have been considered run of the mill back-passing and place changing schoolboy stuff, but at the time it was revolutionary in hockey (a similar revolution occurred in soccer in 1953 with short passes around the edge of the penalty box. It was introduced by the Hungarian team, the first team ever to beat England at Wembly).

The Lissek format was a pass from deep mid-field to a forward who had dropped back to receive it (bringing his marker with him), as the pass was made the receiver suddenly accelerated towards the ball which gave him the opportunity to receive the pass beyond the playing reach of his marker, the ball was frequently not stopped at all but slapped backwards to a third player who had moved forward and wide as the initial pass was made, he in turn then made a second forward pass to a fourth player who had moved up from midfield to take the place of the initial receiver when he started to drop back. Simple but good timing and precise execution made this kind of movement very effective. The Dutch center mid-field was circumvented and the marker of the initial receiver was stranded behind the play, marking no-one. I was stood among a large crowd of Dutch supporters, who bellowed “OBSTRUCTION” every time the described movements were carried out. But there was no obstruction the German players carried out the receiving and passing off of the ball beyond the playing reach of the Netherlands players. Modern day Dutch supporters seem not to be aware that there is an Obstruction Rule and neither do their umpires. The important thing was that Lissek’s tactic was introduced under the then existing Rules and complied with them. The new (but actually not different )Rule approach was introduced I think because the FIH could see that the tactic would be copied and they were afraid that defenders charging into the back of receiving players was a strong possibility, so they moved to protect receivers from such aggression. The road to Hell being paved with good intentions.

The FIH ‘solved’ the problem caused by the multiple interpretations of “must move away” not by explaining how such movement away should take place, but by removing the requirement to move away at all – thereby creating what has become in the ensuing years a massive problem.

In 1994 “Having collected the ball, the receiver must move away in any direction (except, of course, bodily into the tackler) or immediately pass the ball away” – a clear requirement and alternative – was replaced with:

“Having collected the ball, the receiver may move away in any direction (except, of course, bodily into the tackler).”

The replacement gives no instruction, nor does it demand that a receiver do anything or prohibit any action by a receiver. It didn’t take long for Team Coaches to realize that receivers could be used like basket-ball point players, they could receiver and protect the ball and pass backwards (or not ) when ready, they could wait holding the ball in a stationary position while team-mates moved to support them. In 1998. George Croft the Hon Sec, of the Hockey Rules Board felt it necessary to write in the Preface of the rule-book. “Despite what some people think there is still an Obstruction Rule”. In 2001 the advice to umpires to watch for players who stand still and shield the ball when under pressure, was added to the rule-book. In 2004 it was deleted along with all other then existing Advice to Umpires. We are left with an unexplained fragment (no reference to opposition at all) in the Obstruction Rule “A stationary player receiving the ball is permitted to face in any direction.” To which the response could be “Yes of course, he/she is, why would they not be?

“Having collected the ball, the receiver may move away in any direction (except, of course, bodily into the tackler).” disappeared in 2004 along with all the rest of the Rules Interpretations section, so the current fragment “A stationary player receiving the ball is permitted to face in any direction.” is all that remains of the instruction given to a closely marked receiver of the ball in 1993 who was accepting a pass from the direction his own defence, and umpires are left to interpret it.

I suggest a deletion of the fragment and a return to the way the Obstruction Rule was applied prior to 1993 i.e. as it was in 1991 before the Rule was upended and then destroyed. There is no need for special addition protection for receivers of the ball, all physical contact is illegal in hockey and always has been. The judicious use of cards for players who barge into receivers instead of attempting a legal tackle would not take long to solve any problem.

Doubtless there will be strong protest from participants who were not even born in 1991, but who fondly cling to a ‘memory’ of a time when brutish defenders would not allow any player to receive the ball from behind without risk of being barged to ground. Having played hockey throughout the period I have no memory of anything at all like that – and in the time I was playing First and Second XI club hockey I was never once penalised for obstruction, even though throughout majority of that time I played on the left wing. Matches were not stopped every few seconds to penalise an obstruction offence, players avoided obstructing opponents, in much the same way as they avoided moving into an off-side position, by being aware of the movement and positioning of opponents.

When I compare what is happening today to the way players conducted themselves in former times, I would be happy to see a return to the application of the Obstruction Rule as it was then: it was at least understood and observed. Nowadays it seems that shielding the ball in a stationary position is not obstruction and a player who is moving with the ball cannot obstruct. Where is the sense of an Obstruction Rule in these ‘interpretations’?

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