Hurling & Camogie

Christy O’Connor: hurling can take more steps towards a better rule

Shane O’Donnell’s goal against Wexford highlighted further one of the game’s big talking points

Shane O'Donnell receives his award at the Gaelic Writers' Association Awards ceremony. (Sportsfile)
Clare's Shane O'Donnell (pictured right, against Kilkenny) scored another great goal against Wexford - but took 10 steps in doing so.

EVER since he burst onto the scene as a 19-year old in 2013, scoring a hat-trick in the 2013 All-Ireland final replay, Clare’s Shane O’Donnell has made a habit of scoring goals, especially audacious goals. His strike against Wexford last Saturday was another one of those to add to his portfolio of brilliance.

O’Donnell was still 40 metres from goal when he secured possession ahead of Matthew O’Hanlon. After taking one touch, O’Donnell immediately took on Wexford’s strongest defender. Once O’Donnell eventually got past O’Hanlon, he feigned to strike the ball off his hurley, which immediately wrong-footed Shane Reck and opened up a clearer line of sight of the goal.

Shane Reck, and his brother Damien, were still between O’Donnell and the goalkeeper Mark Fanning but Damien Reck couldn’t commit to going towards O’Donnell to tackle him because Peter Duggan was nearby as an option for a pop-pass.

Once O’Donnell got inside the 13-metre line and wound up to strike the ball, Fanning assumed that he was going to go across his body to generate the most power, so Fanning was already moving to his left. Yet O’Donnell hit a flatter strike, with less power, as he stroked the ball into the far corner, completely outwitting Fanning in the process.

It was another perfect amalgam of strength, genius and assassin finishing from O’Donnell. The only question mark around the goal was the number of steps he took when getting past O’Hanlon - O’Donnell took at least ten steps. Yet he physically wasn’t able to play the ball during that action as O’Hanlon was trying to tackle him.

As O’Donnell first stepped inside the Wexford defender, O’Hanlon used his spare arm to try and pull O’Donnell’s hand to try and rip the sliotar from his possession. O’Donnell took eight steps during that action of trying to get past the Wexford defender, but there were a couple of things at play. For a start, O’Hanlon was fouling O’Donnell but, technically, O’Donnell was also committing a foul from taking too many steps. So should the referee Johnny Murphy have blown for a free-in or a free-out?

Murphy was using the advantage rule but the rule in that situation is complex, stating that “if, during the advantage period, a foul is committed by a player of the team which was originally fouled then the advantage is cancelled and a free is awarded for the ‘second’ foul”.

So, in that instance, was O’Donnell not fouling the ball by taking too many steps? Yet how could O’Donnell play the ball when his hand was being held? Surely the attacker in that situation has to be given the advantage, which O’Donnell was.

O’Hanlon engaged O’Donnell on his first step – which is what players are encouraged to do - but what would have happened if O’Donnell was on his fourth step before he ran into O’Hanlon? How many steps then would he have been forced to take? Where would the cut-off point have been then?

That example also feeds into a wider problem in hurling around the consistency of applying the steps rule. In the 72nd minute of the Joe McDonagh final, John Lennon from Laois was pulled for taking seven steps just as he appeared about to strike the equalising point.

It was a harsh call but it wasn’t a wrong call from the referee Colm McDonald. There was an argument to be made that Lennon took three steps to slow down and change direction, and four to speed up. But it was still seven steps. The rule is either the rule or its not, but hurling has reached such a stage now that the application has become extremely difficult to enforce correctly in certain situations.

In fairness to McDonald, he did pull for some earlier infringements on steps in the Joe McDonagh final, but how many times is a referee really going to blow for that offence? At a stretch, two, possibly three.

Everybody wants the game to flow, including players, but with so much gang tackling and players frantically taking too many steps as they try and extricate themselves from being swallowed up in possession, especially around the middle of the field, hurling has become almost impossible to referee correctly.

The game has evolved to such a degree now that the ball is spending too much time in players’ fists, and not enough time in dispute. It is increasingly a running game, in which the advantage lies with the runner.

In hurling, players are conditioned to take the ball into contact. They’re built to break tackles but, conversely, opposition players have also had to come up with a way to try and stop that from happening. The tackler’s spare hand is used to drag at the arms of the players in possession or to slow the runner down. Use of the spare hand is almost always a foul but referees rarely blow for it.

Changing the rule to six steps would be more realistic, especially when referees have so much other information to take in if a player is heading towards goal with intent; where a player may be in relation to penalty lines; watching another impending tackle; trying to decide if it is a goalscoring opportunity and a potential black card. In all of those situations, the steps rule may not be to the forefront of the referee’s mind.

By and large, if a forward is taking too many steps, the only action a defender can take is to pull and drag at him, especially his arm. That’s not excusing the action, or disregarding the rule, but that kind of pulling and dragging will continue unless hurling returns to more of its original character.

The ball is being carried too much. Hurling needs more man-on-man contests. Possession is nine-tenths of the law but a compromise must be reached; either the steps rule must be enforced more rigidly, or else a rule needs to be introduced whereby the ball can only be handled once in each possession. It would certainly discourage players from overcarrying the ball. It would also promote more 50-50 contests.

As if to reaffirm O’Donnell’s genius last Saturday, he only caught the ball once before playing it off the hurley and driving it to the net. O’Donnell is an assassin finisher, but his brilliance still underlined the potential which hurlers have if the rules are changed for the betterment of the game.