Sport Hurling

Thursday 21 September 2017

Free conundrum throws up possibility of rule alteration

The All-Ireland final revealed some rule loopholes that could soon be closed

Goalkeeper: Patrick Kelly(Clare)
Goalkeeper: Patrick Kelly(Clare)

Dermot Crowe

HAVING been among the lucky attendance at last Sunday's absorbing All-Ireland hurling final, Thomas Ryan left Croke Park an even more ardent believer in the motion he proposed at Wexford annual convention last December.

It read: 'In hurling, any free being taken, penalty or otherwise, no ball can be struck inside the 20-metre line. The penalty for breach of this is a free out. Linesmen and referees to police this issue'. He estimates he received around 40 cent approval; good but not good enough to gain a hearing at Congress.

It might have succeeded with the benefit of some dramatic evidence from last Sunday's All-Ireland hurling final. Ryan's case would certainly have packed more punch had Anthony Nash's free-taking been as topical then as it is now. Ryan didn't have Nash in mind when framing his motion but the Cork goalkeeper is the most striking example yet of the point he was trying to get across.

There were plenty others to choose from in the past; at all levels in hurling, players naturally propel themselves forward when taking a 20-metre free or penalty if they have a goal in mind. Eddie Keher stole a few yards in his time and people old enough may recall the exciting accompanying soundtrack of Micheál O'Hehir – "he bends! he lifts! he strikes!" – when Keher was about to let fly. Christy Ring took the ball a generous distance too and would have considered it something of an art form. But how far can a player take it? Nash's ground-breaking technique which sees him strike several yards ahead of the starting position may herald some revision of the rule.

While virtually every player gains ground in the course of lifting and striking the ball it is also the case that many goalkeepers buy a few steps, though they are required to be 20 metres from the free-taking position. Nash has such an audacious ball toss, and brilliant eye and hand co-ordination, that he is capable of striking cleanly and with ferocious power as much as seven metres after lift-off. It is a compelling skill but does it breach the spirit of the rule? The distance is set at 20 metres for a reason after all.

"What Nash is doing is he is throwing the ball forward," says Patrick Doherty, GAA national match officials co-ordinator, "which is no different than what free-takers have been doing for the last X number of years; perhaps he is throwing it a metre, or metres, more than most. What Nash is doing is not unique; maybe the ability to throw it further makes him unique."

The referee for the hurling final replay will not be under instruction to pay unusually close attention to any Nash penalties or 20-metre frees should they arise. As for the goalkeeper, he will be expected, Doherty says, to "abide by the rules" which require him to remain on the line until the ball is struck in the case of a penalty and, in the case of a free, until it is "taken" – in some cases goalkeepers are interpreting this as when the ball is lifted.

In the first half Patrick Kelly rushed from his goal-line when he saw Nash advance while preparing to strike a 20-metre free. "I read somewhere that some of the technical experts reckon he (Kelly) was six metres from the ball when he (Nash) struck it," says Doherty. "His move started when the ball was jabbed."

Thomas Ryan's interest in the issue prefaces last Sunday's drama. A member of St Anne's club, Rathangan, he is a father of Darragh, the former Wexford full-back. The motion he prepared wasn't a product of a stand-out experience but arose from a conviction that the rule was being exploited and needed to be addressed.

"I felt very strongly about it," says Ryan, "and wanted a simple rule to cut out the messing. The referee would stand in line with the free and if someone crossed the line a free out would be the result. They can hit it behind the line if they want to."

He also expressed health and safety concerns. "I think what will happen is you will maybe have a young chap in goal and a big fella will hit a ball some day and drive the wire through the helmet and the GAA won't have a leg to stand on. Counsel will say it was a 21-yard free and he struck it from 14. Somebody can be killed from a ball struck from that distance.

"It (the motion) got a good oul' hearing but it was something they did not go with at convention. Maybe if it went again we might get it carried. People will be more aware of it. I think it is an injustice really as it stands."

Ryan says he intends resubmitting the motion in the wake of last Sunday's All-Ireland final. Nash took two 20-metre frees and a penalty during the game; he goaled once from his second free, but was denied by a fraction from the penalty and the first free had Kelly blocking the effort after coming well off the line. The first-half free should have been retaken. The rule obliges the goalkeeper to be positioned at least 20 metres from where the free or penalty is being taken but given Nash's movement forward that became an impossibility.

Ryan expects similar motions to his will now emerge ahead of county conventions later in the year. The GAA will examine the issue too. One solution would be to create a strike zone just beyond the 20-metre line to allow the pick-up, run and strike, but without breaching the set distance.

There has been some related comment regarding goalkeepers using hurls with a large bás for close-range frees or penalties, on the basis that it gives them unfair advantage over other outfield players who operate with a smaller bás. Doherty poured cold water on this theory, making the point that each hurl has a 'sweet spot' irrespective of the bás size and that the challenge was the same whether the bás was large or small. There is a maximum bás width of 13cm allowed, but no weight restriction. Doherty said it would be impractical for a referee to check all bás sizes before a match, and they trusted players to abide by the regulations.

Another Wexford motion, which made it to Congress and was passed, also bears close relation to an issue raised by last Sunday's hurling final.

The Clonard club persuaded Congress in 2010 to support its motion seeking an independent time-keeping system and public clock similar to that used in ladies football. The motion, while passed, later got tangled up in Central Council reservations over cost and practicality. In the meantime, Gaelic football has been granted that facility through the work of the Football Review Committee, a motion being passed at Congress in Derry earlier in the year that will see a public clock in operation at all senior inter-county championship games in 2014.

Now, it has emerged that hurling will follow suit. The decision was taken by Central Council last April. From next year hurling will benefit from the same facility, removing time-keeping from the referee's hands. Sources say the Wexford motion was kept under consideration and eventually worked into policy.

Last Sunday Brian Gavin indicated at least two minutes additional play and allowed another half minute, which was at his discretion. A Cork lineball, taken by

Stephen Moylan, may have been a factor in time being extended, due to perceived time-wasting. The sideline was awarded at 71 minutes 29 seconds and taken at 71 minutes 59 seconds. Before that another Cork line ball took slightly longer, with one player stepping up to take it and then moving away to allow another take it instead. When Domhnall O'Donovan got possession the clock had gone just over 20 seconds beyond the minimum time allowed.

In an All-Ireland ladies football intermediate semi-final between Tipperary and Fermanagh in Thurles the day before, the winning score was kicked before the hooter sounded but it stood, as the rules are clear that play continues until the ball is dead as in rugby. The same applies if a free is awarded as the hooter sounds or just before; the kick is allowed.

The referee could have blown his whistle as O'Donovan was about to strike, or while he was waiting for the pass, but imagine the reaction had he done so. The two minutes had elapsed, but the two minutes indicated are the minimum time allowed. The equaliser was scored 26 seconds after that had expired. It was not an enormous extension and Cork may be more bothered by not making better use of the ball when they had it, the lineball going dead and returning possession, and a last chance of salvation, to Clare.

Doherty admits he felt dubious initially about the additional time allowed but having looked back on the match can see how it is justified, citing deliberate time-wasting over the last Cork sideline. "The other thing we would always say is you don't blow the whistle when unsafe to do so, like basically when someone is about to take a shot. You don't blow the whistle when there is an attack building."

Dave Ormonde explained why his club, Clonard, had brought forward the motion to Congress in 2010. "We felt it was going to take pressure off the referee as there were games round that time that had disputes arising over time added – not like the 30 seconds last Sunday, it was usually over longer time being played. We felt this would be fairer on everybody."

It is only a matter of time before that is brought into practice and the referee is relieved of the burden. But the free-taking conundrum will be with us for a little while longer at least.

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