Sunday 28 May 2017

Goal dearth in hurling may be hard to reverse - O'Keeffe

Waterford goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe and his Kilkenny counterpart Eoin Murphy at the launch of the KN Group All-Ireland GAA Golf Challenge, which will be held at Waterford Golf Club on September 9 and 10. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Waterford goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe and his Kilkenny counterpart Eoin Murphy at the launch of the KN Group All-Ireland GAA Golf Challenge, which will be held at Waterford Golf Club on September 9 and 10. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The number of goals scored in the Allianz Hurling League has dipped considerably over the last couple of years and Waterford goalkeeper Stephen O'Keeffe admits he expects that downward trend to continue.

O'Keeffe, speaking at yesterday's launch of the All-Ireland GAA golf challenge in Croke Park, acknowledged he is forced into making fewer saves than he was when first played inter-county hurling during Davy Fitzgerald's reign in the county.

Just 29 goals were scored in the five rounds of regulation games in Division 1A this year, a drop from 39 in 2015 and 44 in 2014 as more structured defences kick in. It's the first time since the six-team divisions were created in 2012 that the average number of goals per game has dropped to fewer than two.

Until they hit Offaly for six in their quarter-final last week Kilkenny had managed just four goals against the top teams, all coming in the last 10 minutes of two games.

It's a trend that was evident in last year's championship too and O'Keeffe puts it down to better defending and more contentment among forwards to take their point.

"I think there's an onus on forwards to take the point whenever it's on. Scores seem to be at a little bit more of a premium these days," he observed.

"But I still think when you look at some of the scorelines, teams are racking up 20-plus points which is still huge scoring. I think teams are a lot more conscious of keeping out the goals."

O'Keeffe's rush and block on Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash's penalty in the 2014 Munster Championship was generally credited as the moment that forced clarification around the rules of relating to penalties and close-range frees in the game which precipitated the one-to-one being format adopted last year. The consensus was that the odds were stacked in favour of the taker and O'Keeffe agrees that it should still be the case. But statistics, so far, have not reflected that.

From his own experiences he has faced two one-to-one penalties, one of which Cork's Patrick Horgan scored in last year's Munster Championship the other - in a club game - resulted in a point.

"I think there haven't been a lot of penalties but I know for a fact we practise them in training and when the striker of the ball is confident eight out of 10 of those are going in the goals.

"When you stick it right in the corner there is no getting to them. It comes down to the penalty-takers on the big days holding their nerve a bit because we do it in training and as a goalkeeper you can't read which side it is going to go.

"You can't react quick enough if you stick it into the corner. The advantage is firmly with the forward," he said.

For that penalty block on Nash O'Keeffe had significant bruising but it was, he admitted, "a lot wore than it looked" and there was no thought of fear.

"I was wearing a (protection) cup for the first time in my career. I was a bit more confident with it. At the time the adrenalin was going. You are not thinking at that level at all.

"You are just thinking about stopping the ball and I felt at the time that it was the best way to make it happen."

O'Keeffe has provided stability in a position that regularly changed hands during Justin McCarthy's time in charge. And playing behind such a stable defensive structure also has its obvious benefits.

"We've got a lot of time to gel together even myself I think Barry Coughlan has been full-back behind me on every team I have played on.

"There is a huge familiarity there and everyone knows each other's games. It makes even communicating split-second decisions much easier."

Bedding

O'Keeffe feels Waterford have added a few attacking strings to their bow over the league with the players like Patrick Curran and Shane Bennett bedding down further into the team and Austin Gleeson enjoying a more advanced role for his innate skill set.

"Patrick got a few runs last year but he's really stepped up as one of the leaders of the forwards this year. He's been excellent, he's taken over some of the frees when he's been needed as well, he's nailed nine out of ten of them. He's a huge lad, the likes of Shane Bennett stepping up as well. Pauric Mahony recovering from injury too. There are options there.

"Shane was doing his Leaving Cert last year so you tend to forget how young some of the lads are. In fairness to them they seem to take it in their stride."

O'Keeffe admires the ability of these players to stay grounded in the face of rising expectation.

"Our younger lads are very good at blocking out the outside expectation," he said. "It can be a very dangerous thing listening to popular opinion outside. It can either be too negative or too positive, it's rarely on the money about what your abilities are."

Stephen O'Keeffe was speaking at the launch of the All-Ireland GAA Golf Challenge which is open to all clubs and will be held in Waterford Castle on the weekend of September 9/10. It is being sponsored by the KN Group. For more information visit www.gaagolf.com.

Irish Independent

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