Martin Breheny: Hurling's grey area creating a free-for-all
Chaos reigns as rules anomaly sees lift-and-strike technique force defenders into no-man's land
THE All-Ireland hurling final replay could be decided by a score made possible by a major contradiction in the rules which technically makes goalkeepers/ defenders guilty of an illegal act simply by standing on their own goal-line.
It's a bizarre situation and arises from the understanding of when a penalty/free is actually taken. Controversy arose last Sunday when Offaly referee Brian Gavin did not order a retake of a Cork 20-metre free in the first half after Anthony Nash's shot was charged down by Patrick Kelly, who was several metres off his line.
The Clare goalkeeper dashed forward after Nash lifted the ball and was closing in on his Cork counterpart as he made the strike close to the 13-metre line. Kelly used Nash's lift as the moment he was permitted to leave his line but, under the interpretation of the rule as applied by referees, he was not entitled to move forward until the ball was struck.
That's where the glaring anomaly arises. The rule also states that opposing players must be 20 metres away when the ball is struck, but that is not possible from a 20-metre free or penalty since the striker is much closer in by the time he makes contact.
Pat McEnaney, chairman of the National Referees' Committee, conceded it was something of a grey area and said that discussion on the issue would be welcome.
Questions have been raised for years over how close to goal the striker of a penalty or 20-metre free can move the ball before hitting it. Specialist hit-men have become increasingly adept at gaining several metres between the lift and the strike. Nash appears to have taken it to new levels with a lengthy toss forward – he was close to the 13-metre line for three strikes last Sunday.
His first and third (20-metre free and penalty) efforts were blocked but his second (20-metre free) whizzed to the net for a goal which cut Clare's lead to two points after 57 minutes at a time when Cork appeared in danger of losing touch. TV re-runs show that four Clare defenders were well off their line when the strike was made.
The big issue revolves around the ambiguity of the rules as they currently stand.
The rule on penalties decrees that they must be "taken at the centre point of the 20-metre line," yet defenders have to remain on their line "until the ball has been struck."
That allows the penalty striker to gain several metres before striking the ball while the defenders are supposed to remain on their line.
Effectively, it means that if the taker is sufficiently skilled to make considerable ground between lift and strike – as Nash did three times last Sunday – a penalty or 20-metre free can be taken up to seven metres closer to goal than envisaged by the actual rule.
McEnaney said there had been some unofficial discussion among referees on the issue but that the interpretation taken over the years worked on the basis that a free/penalty was deemed to have been taken at the point of striking, rather than lifting.
"I suppose the argument would be that if you forced the taker to be on or outside the 20-metre line when actually striking the ball, as opposed to lifting it, an advantage was being handed back to the offending side," he said.
"You could bring in a rule stating that the strike must be made no closer than 20 metres but would that be exonerating foul play to some degree? I suppose it's an area for discussion."
Referees will continue to interpret the rule on the basis that the strike, rather than the lift, determines when the free/penalty is actually taken. And since that's happening ever closer to the goal, the defence line are left in the position of being bombarded from close range, despite the regulations stating that they must be 20 metres from the strike, which is actually impossible.
There's also growing concern over the hurleys being used to take penalties. It is becoming quite common for goalkeepers to take penalties using extra-large hurleys, which they deploy in their primary role as shot-stoppers. That increases their power, which when coupled with the strike taking place anything up to seven metres inside the 20-metre line, greatly increases the taker's advantage.
It has also emerged that despite the rule stating that 13 centimetres (5 and one-eighth inches) at the widest part is the maximum permitted size of a hurley, no inspections ever take place to check if bigger sticks are being used.
It's understood that most goalkeepers use much bigger hurleys, safe in the knowledge that they will never be checked.