Those caught in line of fire just want level playing field

In 1974, on a trial basis, the GAA introduced the hurling penalty as a 20m free shot with only three defenders lining the goal.

The following year it was voted into rule and for nearly 40 years it operated without complaint. Now, however, because of the technique developed by Cork goalkeeper and penalty-taker Anthony Nash, it has become a hot topic. Not just the penalty itself either, but all regular 20m frees from directly in front of goal.

In common with most free-takers, Nash takes a short run to the ball before lifting and striking it. Unlike most, however, he throws the ball high, gains several metres and makes contact almost on the 13m line. The only chance of a save being made is if those on the line charge out to meet the ball, which is what Clare keeper Patrick Kelly did for the first Nash 20m free in the drawn All-Ireland final of three weeks ago. If they are lucky the sliotar will strike their stick, as in the case of Conor Ryan when he deflected a shot onto the crossbar.

The concern now though, isn’t about whether the defending side has any chance of saving the shot, it’s about health and safety and the potential damage suffered if those in the goals are hit by the ball.

One man who knows only too well about that inherent danger is former Limerick All Star keeper Joe Quaid. In a league game against Laois in 1997 a low, powerfully-struck penalty shot bounced off the ground and hit him directly in the testicles; one exploded on impact part of the second was subsequently removed. Dangerous?

“Who are you telling! It is of course, and not just in matches either,” he said.

“I remember Gary Kirby practicing penalties inside in the Gaelic Grounds and none of the lads would stand in for them. Davy Clarke, Stephen McDonagh, none of them, and that’s when fellas were rising it on the 21 and hitting it maybe only a yard or two inside.

“Nowadays though, it’s even more dangerous, the lighter ball, guys throwing it so far forward. If a fella gets that ball into the Adam’s apple or in the chest, the kidney, how much damage will it do? A ruptured spleen, a punctured lung? Are they waiting for something like that to happen before they stop it?”

Joe’s nephew Nicky is the current Limerick custodian and he too has had his travails.

“I got hit in the face last year against Clare, a Tony Kelly penalty, ended up with six stitches on my chin,” said Nicky. “Tony threw the ball well forward but when you’re allowed, why not?

“I’d keep three on the line but maybe give the penalty-taker a yard or two. A new penalty spot like in Gaelic football, but then the ball can’t be struck beyond that spot. Let a fella put it down outside and lift it forward, but not beyond that mark. You don’t want to make it too hard either. They’ve got to have a reasonable chance of a goal. Give them two yards max, but not six or seven!”

Joining Joe and Nicky Quaid in the call for change is Tipperary keeper Brendan Cummins.

“Anthony Nash has really opened up a can of worms, hasn’t he. After watching him I tried it in a club game and got the ball to the 13m line. Sure you can’t miss that close and with that momentum. I wouldn’t be for it at all. My own view is that the ball should be struck from the 20m line or outside it.

“Striking from the 13m line is extremely dangerous. I know Croke Park want more goals, more excitement, and we all now have helmets but what’s going to happen when everyone is doing what Anthony has now perfected, throwing the ball in as far as the 13m line? You don’t have time to really protect yourself.

“There’s a picture of me somewhere against a Pat Horgan penalty in Thurles. Pat didn’t throw it in very fair, in fairness to him, only a yard or two, but he still got fantastic power on it. It hit me on the wrist but when you look at the photo, the way my whole body is twisted trying to protect myself, it’s as if I’m avoiding a car crash.

“I’ve trained to have reflexes as fast as any professional sportsperson but you put someone in the goal who hasn’t had that training. Imagine the ball coming straight at someone like that and hitting them in the middle of the chest, it could break the breast-bone. Are they going to wait till we have another Joe Quaid incident, or worse? What happens then?”

Echoing the call of those three goalkeepers is the multi-decorated former Kilkenny No 1 Noel Skehan, a man who was there when the penalty rule was introduced.

“When we were playing Eddie Keher was able to throw it forward a nice bit ahead, Ned Buggy of Wexford was another. Then some lads balance it on the hurley before throwing it up and I don’t agree with that at all, at all. There is definitely a health and safety issue there, someone is going to get hurt.

“I think the ball should be struck from the 20m line. It should not be carried beyond that.”

What of the penalty-takers themselves though, how do they feel about it? First, the aforementioned Keher, who takes issue with his former county colleague.

“Noel said I threw it well forward? The cheek of him! I didn’t actually. I threw it maybe a yard, hit it about waist-height. If you throw it too far you’re then chasing after it. I would never have been able to do what Nash is doing now. I didn’t have the big bas then, nor the light ball either!”

What would he favour, though? Perhaps a one-on-one, the strike to take place on the 20m line?

“I wouldn’t be in favour of that anyway. You’d have no bother scoring, it would be cut-and-dried. Regardless of how confident the keeper may be they’d never get to a ball that was hit for the corner, either down low or up high. Keep it as it is, three on the line, but let the ball be struck from no nearer than the 20m line even if that means it’s placed outside that. That still makes it fair for the attacking team.”

For Tipp’s Eoin Kelly, however, it’s not really that simple.

“With three on the line, if you were to strike the ball from the 20m line, couldn’t bring it forward, 10 times out of 10 that ball will be saved. Don’t think a penalty is simple to score. It’s not.

“Unless you throw the ball in those few yards you’re not going to score, simple as that. I’d leave it alone but if they are going to change it to stop the free-taker moving in. I’d have just one on the goal-line on his own. Allow the free-taker then to place the ball back a few yards from the 21 and throw it forward, but not beyond the line, I think that would be fair and it would bring more excitement to it.”

Final word to one of hurling’s younger brigade, Limerick striker Shane Dowling, who wonders if all this is just a storm in a tea-cup.

“This only became an issue when Patrick Kelly charged off his line in the All-Ireland final. Before that there was never any talk about it. You can argue about the dangers but most keepers now are wearing a protective cup, along with the helmet. You get hit in the legs or the chest, a bit of a sting, but you get over it. Patrick Kelly didn’t even go down when he was hit.

“I think it’s fine the way it is, leave it alone, no restriction on how far forward you can throw the ball. Maybe one-on-one from 25 yards, that would make it more interesting, but one-on-one from the 20m line? That’s too easy for the free-taker.”

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