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Christy O'Connor: A fair rule tailor-made for hurling's character

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Kilkenny’s TJ Reid, centre, and Eoin Murphy save a penalty from Tipperary’s John O’Dwyer in the All-Ireland final

Kilkenny’s TJ Reid, centre, and Eoin Murphy save a penalty from Tipperary’s John O’Dwyer in the All-Ireland final

SPORTSFILE

Kilkenny’s TJ Reid, centre, and Eoin Murphy save a penalty from Tipperary’s John O’Dwyer in the All-Ireland final

Last March, Limerick's Shane Dowling came up with a new trick for penalties and 20-metre frees. He had seen the power and destruction Anthony Nash had unleashed from his bazooka style in 2013, and Dowling was anxious to get in on the act.

Assuming the goalkeeper and defenders would stay close to the line, Dowling began scooping the ball so high on the lift that he was propelling it forward, allowing it to bounce, before then connecting about six metres from goal. The only reason Dowling abandoned that technique was because he couldn't trust the bounce on a softer sod.

In Waterford, Austin Gleeson had gone a step further. Gleeson had almost perfected a one-handed jab-lift which popped the ball up in the air and catapulted it so far forward that Gleeson was able to strike clean about seven metres from goal.

Others were also coming up with their own headline acts. If they were playing Cork, one county had toyed with the idea of positioning their fastest forward on the 20-metre line for penalties or frees.

As soon as Nash lifted the sliotar, the forward planned to hare in after the ball and try and flick it away before Nash made his connection.

It was becoming a circus until the show was finally wound down last June after Waterford's Stephen O'Keeffe charged down a Nash rocket.

BISCUIT

"It had turned into a complete joke," says Dowling. "Lads were just taking the biscuit. It had to change."

Prior to O'Keeffe's high-wire act, a clash of rules remained. Rule 4.16 (a) precluded any player defending a 20m free or penalty from being within 20m of the ball when it was struck. The rule was being applied to goalkeepers and defenders but not the free-taker. Naturally, goalkeepers began exploiting the anomaly.

For Nash's first penalty in the 2013 drawn All-Ireland final, Clare goalkeeper Pa Kelly advanced to just seven metres from Nash when he struck the ball, which hit Kelly on the hip.

When Nash squared up to his second 20-metre free in the second half, referee Brian Gavin told Kelly he had to remain on the line.

Yet by the time O'Keeffe charged down Nash's bullet last June, referees seemed satisfied that a striking action began with the lift, when initial contact was made, and players were free to advance at that point.

The new interpretation meant a player taking a penalty or 20m free could strike the ball on, or outside, the 20m line but not inside it. Joe Canning and Patrick Horgan scored four goals from penalties and frees inside the first two weeks but those stats skewed the overall conversion rate, with only 20pc of penalty shots being scored in Liam MacCarthy games following the rule change.

"In my opinion, last year was a complete disaster," says Dowling. "The conversion percentage was nowhere near where it should have been."

A week before the rule change, Dowling scored a 20m free against Tipp. Afterwards, he began practising his penalties on Nickie Quaid and the Limerick sub keepers, Aaron Murphy and Barry Hennessy. That challenged Dowling to raise his standards higher but his frustration remained.

"I couldn't score them," he says. "If I had got a penalty or 21 last year, I genuinely don't know what I would have done."

This week the Hurling 2020 committee proposed new rule changes on the controversial topic, calling for one-on-one for a penalty, and three-on-one for a close-in-free.

Dowling got a feel for the proposals last October when the 2020 committee organised a testing session in Thurles involving a number of top inter-county penalty takers and goalkeepers. The group included Dowling, Nash, Canning, Pa Kelly, Colm Callanan (Galway) and Eoin Kelly (Tipperary).

Five different options were trialled: one-on-one from the 20m line (ball placed outside the 20m line but could not be struck inside 20m); 18m shot with three in goal (ball placed outside the 20m line but couldn't be struck inside 18m); one on two (to be struck no closer than the 20m line); one-on-two with ball in hand (to be struck no closer than the 20m line - no free-taking movement required); 20m frees from the edge of the 'D' with three in goal.

The most successful was one-on-one, with a 62pc conversion rate. Those figures were in line with the committee's expectations.

"The stats were 20-80 last year when they should almost be 80-20 in favour of the attacking team," says Liam Sheedy, chairman of the committee. "I think they should be closer to 70pc at least."

The rule seems to heavily balance the stats in favour of the attacking team (as it should) but goalkeepers have also accepted the new proposal. Mind games will now come into play. Placement will often be an alternative to power.

"With the way it was, you were just standing your ground, trying to get in the way of the shot," says Callanan.

"To me, that's not real goalkeeping. It's more bravery than skill. When it's one-on-one, it's up to you to try and save the day. It's not easy but it's doable."

The stakes have been raised for everyone. Defenders will have to be more disciplined. Strikers are under more pressure to score. The odds are stacked against goalkeepers but the new challenge is one a goalkeeper's mindset craves.

Either way, the sense of theatre of and excitement will be ramped up. This is a fair rule tailor-made for hurling's character.

Irish Independent