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1 July 2014 Edition

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Leading the charge

• Just imagine what would have happened had every free been met by a scene from Braveheart

Limerick were ridiculously priced as 3/1 outsiders against a Tipp team that has more neuroses than a Woody Allen cast

STEPHEN O’KEEFFE’S heroic charging down of Anthony Nash in the Cork v Waterford replay forced the GAA’s hand in relation to the controversy surrounding the taking of penalties and close-in frees in hurling.

From now on they must be struck on or before the line.  As a former corner back I fully concur with the ruling. It is bad enough having to face a penalty without the ball being hit 15 feet away!

O’Keeffe’s derring-do might well have earned him a Victoria Cross had he shown similar valour in the trenches in Flanders. Perhaps an ‘Order of the O’Keeffe’ can be established to reward similar feats of bravery in the future.

While it was undoubtedly courageous, it was going to happen at some stage. The rule states that players facing a free or penalty cannot move until the ball has been struck but ‘striking’ was interpreted in this instant by referee Johnny Ryan as when the stick makes contact with the ball.

Not only is that a bit absurd but it also had massive implications for all frees, as the player taking a free could now be charged down. Just imagine what would have happened had every free been met by a scene from Braveheart. The danger is that that would have led to hand-to-hand combat (as it did in the Cork v Waterford game) or even serious injury meant that that could not be allowed happen.

Some referees straightaway said that the rule should not be taken to mean that lifting the ball constituted striking, and the Referees’ Committee quickly moved to avert a summer of mayhem. So no longer will we witness what was the admittedly impressive spectacle of Nash or anyone else launching all but unstoppable pile-drivers from well within the 20-metre line.

The first real test of the new ruling came in Cork’s Munster semi-final against Clare. Cork were awarded a penalty in the first half but Nash did not come up to take it. It was left instead to Pa Horgan who, with the aid of somewhat naïve defending from Clare, hit the back of net. Hubris perhaps given that certain Clare chaps were among the most vociferous in demanding a ‘Nash Rule’.

Clare will have more than that to ponder as they await the draws for the qualifiers. Mind you, they did win the All-Ireland via the scenic route last year and Davy did not seem overly distraught at the prospect of trying to do so again. It should also be borne in mind that only once in the last ten years have the Munster champions won the All-Ireland, and that was way back when Cork beat the Cats in 2005.

Much of that had to do with the Cats’ dominance but there may also be a certain element of the team who wins Munster, or Leinster for that matter, getting a bit stale over the long lay-off between the provincial finals and the All-Ireland semi-finals. That will be five weeks this year, which is really too long and did neither Limerick or Dublin any favours last year.

Both Limerick and Dublin have again made the finals, contrary to those who were predicting that they would be taken out by Tipp and Wexford respectively. Limerick were ridiculously priced as 3/1 outsiders  against a Tipp team that has more neuroses than a Woody Allen cast. They are 7/4 to beat Cork. Wexford almost had themselves and the rest of the hurling world convinced that they would beat Dublin, who were without a number of key players. They threw the kitchen sink at it but in truth there was never any real doubt about the outcome once Dublin had weathered the early storm to lead at half time.

The last time Dublin successfully defended a Leinster title was in 1942, and the consensus in the world of punditry is that they will fail to do so this year. My view is that, despite the potential downsides to winning Leinster and then cooling their heels for over a month, that Dublin will peak for that game and will be difficult to stop. In hindsight, last year may have been Dublin’s best chance of winning the ultimate prize but they will also be motivated by the realisation that that chance does not come around too often. Time to seize the day.

There is lots of hurling left to do. While there have been some good games so far, there has been nothing to match the excitement and shocks that marked the 2013 championship, even from an early stage. That will change, however, and we may expect to see some surprises, especially in the qualifying phase.

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