A necessary safety measure or penalising excellence?

The ‘Anthony Nash rule’ has been put on the backburner, but will remain a talking point

Clare goalkeeper Patrick Kelly saves a penalty from Cork’s Anthony Nash during last year’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Clare goalkeeper Patrick Kelly saves a penalty from Cork’s Anthony Nash during last year’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Sat, Feb 22, 2014, 01:00

“It’s crazy, it’s dangerous but it’s under the rules so he’s well entitled to do it.”
Michael Duignan’s television commentary on Anthony Nash’s goal in the 2013 All-Ireland hurling final.


It started as a lark at training one night. Early season 1986 and John Commins, the Galway goalkeeper, was making light of the best attempts of Galway’s vaunted forwards to put a penalty past him. “You come out and take a few if you’re so good,” challenged coach Cyril Farrell.

So Commins and Peter Murphy started shooting penalties at the defenders, just for a bit of fun. Commins was trotting back to goal when he saw Farrell looking at him thoughtfully. “You know, you’re not so bad at them,” he said, words which resulted in Commins assuming penalty duties for club and county – including his famous march up the field to hit one against Cork in the All-Ireland final of 1986.

When Commins watches the art of striking for goal from penalties or 20-metre frees now – and in particular the unique sliotar-as-meteorite style which Cork’s Anthony Nash has perfected – he can’t help but marvel at how much the technique has developed.

“I can see kids in our club trying it,” Commins says. “What Nash does is very, very hard to do. Raising the ball to such a height and catching up and then getting that power – a lot of hurlers could try that and never master it. I have seen loads of guys try it and it doesn’t work.

“When I took penalties for Galway, I always told lads that the most important part of the penalty is how you rise the ball. And if you throw it too far ahead of you, then you won’t get your full body weight behind the strike. But he has perfected this down to an art form.”

Through a combination of technical excellence and the memorable spectacle in last year’s All-Ireland hurling final replay when Nash somehow guided a free through a thicket of Clare bodies blocking the goal line, the Cork man has rendered the penalty a matter for debate (although not at this weekend’s congress).


Technique
Nash could patent his technique – lifting the ball so it carries six or seven metres ahead of him and using his run-in and stroke to achieve maximum velocity so that he is only about 13 metres from the goal when he connects. It is a spectacular sight and his conversion rate is outstanding: the shots are almost unstoppable. But what if they hit a defending player or goalkeeper in the wrong place? Safety is the primary reason cited by those who feel the rule has to be amended through today’s motion.

“It has become too dangerous, no question,” says Paudie Butler, who spent five terrifically productive years travelling the country and coaching youngsters on the fundamentals of the game.

He points out than on a purely technical level, the rule is flawed and needs adjustment as it constantly contravenes Technical Foul 4.17, which stipulates that an opposing player can’t be within 20 metres of a free. Through the fact that penalty and free takers move forward in the act of striking, all defending players inadvertently breach that rule.

“You can’t have a rule that you can’t adhere to. So change is required. What form that should take is more difficult to get consensus on. My preference was that the ball be struck from the 20-metre line with one goalkeeper and no defenders. I think it was an awful pity that we ever got the semi-penalty [with two defenders on the line]. It doesn’t exist in any other sport.

“A penalty is a one-on-one situation, which is psychological on top of everything else. I think the top goalkeepers like Nash and David Herity and Gary Maguire would fancy themselves if the ball is being struck from the 20-metre line that they could make a reaction save. And I think it would be intriguing for the spectators also.”

The sight of the supreme sharpshooters like Henry Shefflin or Eoin Kelly or Joe Canning standing over the ball and sizing up the goal is one of the more spine-tingling moments in hurling. Christy Ring famously declared the 20-metre free as “one of the most important shots in the game”.


Iconic moments
In the famous skills film he made with Louis Marcus, he illustrates the required combination of balance, timing and the whipcord strength. Goals from the 20-metre line are remembered and the habit of goalkeepers getting in on the act has enhanced the sense of drama.

Commins’s penalty against Cork, Davy Fitzgerald’s penalty for Clare against Limerick in the Munster final of 1995, Damian Fitzhenry’s two goals against Limerick in the All-Ireland quarter final of 2001 and Nash’s heroics last September have become iconic moments.

Former Kilkenny hurler Adrian Ronan experienced the penalty from all perspectives: a goalkeeper turned free-scoring forward, he can empathise with both gamekeepers and poachers. When Ronan was learning his craft, he got tips on striking from Eddie Keher. The basic aim was to drive the ball just underneath the crossbar. “He gave me and DJ a lot of instruction on that. Almost like a golfer’s swing, coming in under the ball and driving it upwards to its optimum height. Because it takes the goalkeeper that fraction of a second to get the hurl up.”

Like most former hurlers, Ronan finds himself studying both penalty takers and goalkeepers in placed ball situations. “Penalty takers will know the traits of opposition ’keepers. So if you are facing Brendan Cummins, because he catches the hurl left hand on top, he could be that fraction slower getting to his left. You don’t go to Brendan’s right hand side. You go to his left. You would go to Nash’s right. Herity or Murphy would invariably be that bit slow getting to their right.


Homework done
“Equally, goalkeepers will have their homework done. A right-handed penalty taker will seldom go right. But then you have Joe Canning who runs at it and goes under it and he can go anywhere in the goal that takes his fancy. He is excellent at it. There are tiny variables in being brilliant at it and being very good.”

When Commins coaches youngsters standing on the line now, he tells them to just keep watching the ball. “If you watch the penalty-taker in his run up, then you won’t see the ball.”

He noticed Colin Ryan always stands on the line for frees. “He obviously has a brilliant eye for a ball and is brave ... he wants to stand there. Some guys don’t feel comfortable on the line. Those few seconds when you are standing there and you are thinking about what the guy is trying to do ... it takes nerve. But if you stop a penalty, it is a huge lift for your team.”

What looks like a hit-and-hope shot to the naked and untutored eye is a very precise business. Achieving accuracy without losing force is what sets the penalty/free-takers apart.


Significant injury
That penalty-takers want to keep their shot away from the goalkeepers and defenders may account for the fact that there is little anecdotal evidence of goalkeepers or defenders suffering a significant injury from a moving ball.

Butler has spent a lifetime in hurling but has never come across a case like that. It is hard to fathom: other sports using hard balls travelling at speeds associated with automobiles have their traditions of injury. Given that helmets and faceguards are recent accessories, it seems miraculous that more goalkeepers haven’t been injured from being hit by the ball.

“People have instinctive reactions,” Butler says. “Goalkeepers do get their heads out of the way. We have an instinct for survival. What the top goalkeepers will tell you is that there were days when they didn’t see the ball.

And it was an act of God that it went into the space rather than strike them. It’s like in baseball: from a certain distance, the ball won’t be seen. So if Anthony Nash is striking the ball from 12 yards out, then the boys on the line won’t see the ball. And if it hits their hurl or helmet of hits the crossbar, fine. But if it hits their throat, it could be serious.”

Adrian Ronan can’t recall getting a serious belt from the ball “from the shoulders up.” He does recall a Sunday when Michael Walsh, the Kilkenny goalkeeper, was taken off injured and he went in goal to replace him. “And funny, I got a belt too and had to come off. But that was from a box in the jaw! It is seldom a goalkeeper comes off with injury.”

But can GAA bosses continue to permit the possibility of a defender being hit by a ball moving at huge speed?

Ronan often meets Kilkenny legend Fan Larkin, who won five All-Irelands between 1963 and 1979 and who jokingly scoffs at how modern technology has made striking the ball so much easier – better hurls and lighter sliotars. “He tells me he sees 14-year-olds lobbing over 65s. So for his money, Chunky O’Brien is the best free taker because of the old heavy sliotar he was using.”


Field sport
But the point remains: the ball is travelling faster than ever and when people see Shefflin or Nash or Eoin Kelly fire one at goal, the obvious question is: how fast?

All sports in which the ball travels at speed, from tennis to baseball, are obsessed with knowing just how fast the athletes are striking or throwing the ball. Hurling rightly proclaims to be the fastest field sport in the world but has yet to dazzle the world with statistical evidence.

“We have carried out a fair bit of research in terms of trying to get a standardised sliotar,” says Pat Daly, head of games development and research with the GAA. “There is a lot of variability in sliotar core and a lot of stuff coming in from China on which there is very little quality control.

“So we have been trying to move to a standardised core which approved suppliers would have to use. There are different ways to measure the speed. In DCU, they use a high-end speed gun and figure the average speed is somewhere between 70 and 80 miles an hour. But it could be up on 100, depending on the force the ball is struck with and the distance one is from the ball.”

Daly says some exploratory work has been carried out on measuring ball speed. The speed gun could be adapted for use but using a sensor in the sliotar would be the preferable method. “Soccer and ice hockey have used sensors in the puck and in the soccer ball. The big problem we have encountered there was degradation from the constant striking. So unless we can embed the sensor in the very centre of the core, we couldn’t be sure of the reliability.”


Sharp focus
The Hawkeye system was adapted by the GAA as an unerring arbiter of score detection but it too has the facility to measure ball speed. Pat Daly believes that the over time, statistical data on ball speed will become “mainstream and commonplace”.

But for now, we will have to make do with a feature in the game often too fast for the naked eye to process. As John Commins puts it: “Sometimes all you see is the net bulging.”

Hours of practice – from both penalty takers and goalkeepers – lie behind the split-second execution of the strike and the reflex saves. Anthony Nash’s unorthodox brilliance has brought an old tradition into sharp focus. For decades, penalty takers took a run-in and hit with ferocious power, but Nash is hitting the ball harder than ever and at closer range.

The issue is laced with questions. Would a one-on-one penalty situation from 20-metres out leave a goalkeeper with any hope of making a save? Will changing the rule so that the penalty taker still faces the goalkeeper and two defenders but must strike the ball without crossing the 20 metre line tilt the advantage to the defence? Are the dangers being exaggerated? Would Nash need to start his run-in from 30 metres out?

“The onus is on us to do something about it,” says Butler. “Changing it just means placing the ball further back, depending on the impetus you need. What Anthony Nash and players like him can do with a ball is highly skilled. There aren’t many can do it. But they would soon adapt. These lads wouldn’t be long working it out.”