Friday 15 December 2017

Martin Breheny: 'Land-grabbing' era over as sense prevails at last

Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash prepares to take a penalty that was saved by Waterford goalkeeper Stephen O'Keeffe
Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash prepares to take a penalty that was saved by Waterford goalkeeper Stephen O'Keeffe
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

How could such a tiny pimple be allowed to fester into a great big ugly boil? The lack of clarity over whether a free puck in hurling is deemed to be taken when the ball is raised or struck has been part of the game for decades, snoozing happily under the heading: 'Sure it doesn't matter.'

Strikers were always expert at hoisting the ball well inside the 20-metre line before making the hit, but it was regarded as an exciting dimension of the game and allowed to continue, irrespective of the anomaly caused by the wording of the rule.

And then along came Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash, who took land-grabbing to new extremes. Executing the difficult technique of gaining maximum ground between lift and strike with admirable skill last year, he was often close to the 13-metre line when making the hit.

Referees appeared to be confused over whether the penalty (or free) was taken at the point of lift or strike. Checking the rule book brought no clarity.

It did, however, stipulate that the defenders should be 20 metres away from where the free was taken. Was that when the ball was lifted or struck?

If the former, there was no reason why the defence couldn't rush the taker before he struck; if it were the latter, the rule was a complete ass, since short of retreating behind the goal, the defenders could not be 20 metres away.


Conscious of the anomaly, an expert GAA panel proposed a rule change, whereby the striker could not be inside the 20-metre line when striking. That would require him to lift the ball several metres further out.

The motion was due before Congress last February, only to be withdrawn by Central Council the night before, following objections, led by Cork. Now, when Cork oppose, some others tend to assume they are right. Honestly, that's true. In fairness, the motion was clumsily drafted, creating more room for ambiguity. Hence the decision to withdraw it from the agenda with a promise to return next year.

That meant that the uncertainty of last year was set to prevail again this year, only now even more frequently, since free-takers everywhere were copying the Nash technique. Cue even more chaos when referees deemed the free to be taken when the ball was lifted, allowing defenders to dash off the line before the strike was made.

The inevitable result emerged in Thurles last Sunday when Nash and Waterford goalkeeper Stephen O'Keeffe, who bravely sprinted off his line, almost collided as the strike was being made. O'Keeffe blocked the ball, Nash complained that he shouldn't have been so close to the strike and an unseemly dust-up ensued.

The likelihood of several repeats throughout the championship has prompted Croke Park to intervene and, last night, they produced an emergency interpretation which will force the striker to remain outside the 20-metre line and the defenders to remain on the goal line.

It's a sensible decision, albeit belatedly, as in the light of examples from recent weeks, the GAA were leaving itself open to the risk of legal action in the event of a player sustaining a serious injury.

The case has been put forward that a player can be hit by a ball fired from a few metres range in open play without fear of legal action in the event of an injury. It's a fatuous argument since the rules permit that in open play, but they expressly state that a player must be 20 metres away when a free is struck.

Legal eagles would have some fun with that one, pointing out that the GAA has a clearly unworkable free on its books. Nor would a defence that the rule has applied for years without challenge count for anything.

The anomaly had been well-flagged over the last year and a failure to act on it could be regarded by the Courts as unforgivably negligent.

No doubt, there will be whining and whinging from some quarters over the latest intervention, not to mention claims that Central Council don't have the power to make such a decision, but if the current crazy situation was allowed to continue, would the complaining classes underwrite the GAA in the event of legal action? An emergency situation demanded an emergency response, pending the introduction of a tidier rule next year.

Of course, all this should have happened earlier. It was clear from last year that a problem existed, yet when the poorly-drafted response failed to even make it to the floor of Congress, no compromise arrangement was proposed for this season.

That led to the unsustainable situation in the case of Nash v O'Keeffe last Sunday, resulting in the GAA's Management Committee proposing a change of interpretation last night. Central Council has to back it.

'Have nots' need their say too in 2020 revamp

Hurling 2020, a forum established by GAA president Liam O'Neill to examine the state of play and make proposals for future development of the game, wants your views. A website has been set up to canvass opinion from the public in a detailed survey.

Those who take part will be entered for a draw for All-Ireland tickets which should help to swell the volume of replies. Carrying out an overall of hurling is a good idea – as is the survey – but here's something that baffles me.

All of the 11 members are from Division 1 territory, leaving the rest of the country unrepresented on a committee whose findings will impact on every county. Surely in the interests of diverse opinions, the group should be more broadly-based than that.

The members are: Liam Sheedy, chairman (Tipperary), Pat Henderson (Kilkenny), Des Cullinane (Cork), 'Sambo' McNaughton (Antrim), Ollie Moran (Limerick), Veronica Curtin (Galway), Michael Duignan (Offaly), Ollie Canning (Galway), Frank Lohan (Clare), Paul Flynn (Waterford), Ed Donnelly, secretary (Tipperary).

Gods show no mercy to Leitrim as tough Down draw sets up another back-door exit

Having won only one All-Ireland football qualifier game (versus Wicklow in 2012) since the back door was opened 13 years ago, Leitrim might reasonably expect the gods to treat them gently in Monday's first-round draw.

Sadly for Leitrim it looks like they are heading for their 13th qualifier defeat in 14 seasons.

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