How the GAA made a crisis out of a difficulty

The issue of penalties in hurling should have been properly addressed last February

Waterford’s Austin Gleeson, goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe and Shane O’Sullivan get ready to meet Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash’s penalty in Sunday’s Munster SHC replay in Thurles. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Waterford’s Austin Gleeson, goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe and Shane O’Sullivan get ready to meet Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash’s penalty in Sunday’s Munster SHC replay in Thurles. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho


The GAA’s response to the penalty problem in hurling is clearly an emergency measure but it makes you wonder what everyone was thinking back in February.

Then a motion to congress to address the issue had to be withdrawn, ostensibly for drafting reasons but also in the belief as was acknowledged by the director general Páraic Duffy at the time it would probably have been defeated.

This triggered a period of unease for the GAA. Already on notice from an increasing number of voices within the game – especially former inter-county goalkeepers – that players were in danger of serious injury, officials opted to cross their fingers and tick off the days until next year’s congress when a watertight draft could be proposed.

Nerves finally broke at the weekend when Waterford goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe came rushing off his line just as his Cork counterpart Anthony Nash was striding in to convert one of his trademark penalties. O’Keeffe blocked the ball but a melee erupted as players clattered off each other.

Compounding the difficulties was the peculiar “clarification” issued to the Sunday Game on behalf of referees. This stated it was now permissible to rush the free or penalty taker as the puck would be adjudged “taken” as soon as the sliotar was touched rather than when it was struck.

A surprise

This interpretation came as a surprise to many people – including some in Croke Park – and raised the hair-raising prospect of teams charging at each other when frees are taken, anywhere on the field.

Such alarming vistas added to the growing health and safety concerns – with more and more focus on lower grades and age groups where the reflexes and stick technique of those on the goal line would be even more exposed – to make this a crisis in waiting.

The GAA’s medical, scientific and welfare committee haven’t as yet issued a statement but it’s in all likelihood a matter of time as representations have already been made by county team doctors and concerns have been expressed within the committee.

The pressure to do something by way of a new interpretation even allowing for the fact the championship is up and running became irresistible.

In an era when the Disputes Resolution Committee is demanding administrative best practice within the GAA and the Rules Advisory Committee is keeping the Official Guide annually updated the tolerance for ambiguity is wearing thin and it was always likely that leaving a serious issue like this hanging for a whole year would prove impractical.

I remember a Central Council meeting at which a delegate in all crusading seriousness declared to his colleagues in support of someone who he felt was being harshly treated by the letter of the law: “If it’s choice between fair play and the rules I say, to hell with the rules!”

The then president Seán McCague couldn’t have looked more taken aback had the delegate started to pole dance. He politely but firmly pointed out that as the business of Central Council was to uphold the official guide, “you can’t come in here and say to hell with the rules”.

Not everyone in the GAA shared or shares McCague’s rigour when it comes to enforcing rules. Observance has for many been optional and ideally most pronounced when you want to find fault with someone else.

Instruments of oppression

Gaelic games aren’t unique in that but in few other sporting cultures do we find rules viewed as quite the instruments of oppression when enforced within the GAA.

This ambivalence can lead to selective enforcement. Referees often believe no-one wants them to crack down too hard on misconduct and more pressingly they may get little support if a controversy whips up. Rules are what people decide they are rather than a consensual code everyone accepts.

In such an environment it’s understandable the penalty and 20-metre free controversy has emerged in hurling because the game thrives on ambiguity and is unapologetically prone to elevating spectacle above regulation.

Cork feel picked on that the Anthony Nash technique has been the focus on so much debate and negative comment. It is, as is frequently pointed out a skill in itself. Nash didn’t pioneer the idea of getting frees closer to the target; it’s a way of life in football as well as hurling.

Any sport which features two distinct actions in taking a free is always going to have difficulties of interpretation.

The two prescribed ways of taking a free, according to the rulebook, are either cutting the ball off the ground or in Rule 2.5 (a): Lift the ball with the hurley at the first attempt and strike it with the hurley.

Even the phraseology of the rules and the reference to “taking” the free is ambiguous.

Does taking mean the lift or the strike? Strike, according to the GAA’s extensively drafted re-interpretation.

Small wonder that someone with enough imagination and skill could find a way through those definitions.

It’s hard to argue convincingly that the intention of whoever drafted the rule was to create that grey area. The 20-metre free was presumably intended to be struck from that distance rather than simply awarded in that place. Defenders are required to be 20 metres away from where the free is “taken” and that presumably meant when the shot was fired.

But it’s not enough any more to operate in a twilight world of presumption and guesswork. Rules and their interpretations have to say what they mean and be enforced. e-mail:

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