The art of scoring penalties will be more important than ever this GAA winter

The art of scoring penalties will be more important than ever this GAA winter
Shane Dowling of Limerick scores a penalty against Cork in the 2018 hurling semi-final. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

In the Tipperary-Laois All-Ireland quarter-final last July, just before Jason Forde stood over his first-half penalty, Donal O’Grady said in his TV co-commentary that Forde was likely to hit the ball to the left of Laois goalkeeper Enda Rowland.

That type of shot would have given Rowland less reaction time to make the save because he would have had to move his hurley back across his body. Yet if Rowland had studied Forde’s penalty striking trends, he would surely have known that Forde was likely to go to his other side. Forde did but Rowland still got nowhere near it.

Forde is fairly predictable in where he hits his penalties, but he still always backs himself because of the power and accuracy he can generate from the strike. Going to Rowland’s right would have suited the Laois goalkeeper further because he is a right-handed player. But the only way a keeper will stop the type of penalty that Forde has now perfected is by taking a chance and moving to that right post before Forde even addresses the ball.

Trying to guess a side is still a risk but, in any case, the trends have certainly been reversed for hurling penalties. When the one-on-one penalties were introduced for the first time in 2015, ‘keepers seemed to have the edge on strikers. The conversion rate in that year’s championship was just 43%.

The average conversion rate in the 2016 and 2017 championships was just above 50% but there were clear signs in 2018 that forwards had taken back the power, in more than a literal sense; the penalty conversion rate in the 2018 hurling championship was 71%. Last year, it went higher again, up to 78%.

The most natural strike for any player is to hit across their body because that is how they generate maximum power. In the initial two years of the new rule, around 80% of hurling penalty strikes were consistent with that style. That made it easier for ‘keepers to read but the takers have become less predictable now.

In recent years, the conversion rate of penalties in Gaelic football has been around 65%. Most teams still have one lethal penalty taker but that portfolio needed to be expanded after Central Council ruled in late 2018 that a penalty shoot-out would take place if teams were still level after a second period of extra-time.

When the rule was introduced for championship in 2019, it applied for replays in provincial football matches, but football qualifiers and the preliminary All-Ireland hurling quarter-finals had to be decided on the day. Provincial finals and All-Ireland finals were the only games that would go straight to a replay if the teams finished level at 70 minutes, with no extra-time played. 

Yet that has changed completely now with the GAA declaring that there must be a winner on the day for all inter-county championship matches, including All-Ireland finals.

That certainly raises the stakes for all players, particularly when the likelihood of penalties is far more realistic when players are tired in more adverse winter weather conditions, and particularly when players won’t have the same game-time in their legs; in Mayo’s opening two games of the 2019 FBD League against Leitrim and Galway, both games were decided by penalties, albeit there wasn’t any extra-time on those occasions. When Galway and Mayo met again last January, the game was decided by a penalty shoot-out once more.

Mayo's Evan Regan scores the winning penalty past goalkeeper Diarmuid McKiernan of Leitrim. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Mayo's Evan Regan scores the winning penalty past goalkeeper Diarmuid McKiernan of Leitrim. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

In that context, managers, coaches and players will place a lot more focus on penalty taking in the coming months. Many players thrive under that pressure. Regular penalty takers are more nerveless but at least three of the five takers in a hurling or football penalty shootout would not have experience of that pressure at inter-county level.

Once a game goes to penalties, each team has to nominate a goalkeeper, a sub keeper and five penalty takers, all of whom - bar the sub keeper - must have been on the field at the end of extra-time.

The shoot-out is for goals only – points don’t count. A kick or shot is considered to be over once a goal is scored, the ball stops moving, or it goes dead, either over the bar or past the end line.

If the scores are level after each team’s five takers has taken their penalty, it goes to sudden death. Only the same five players can take sudden death penalties, though the order can be changed.

The excitement and entertainment will be massive for supporters, but the responsibility will be a heavy load to bear for amateur players, particularly if it happens in an All-Ireland final.

There is a huge distinction between amateur GAA players and professional soccer players, but a penalty shootout is another form of professional pressure in an amateur game. “It just seems wrong,” said Tomas Ó Sé on the topic recently.

However, former Tipperary goalkeeper Brendan Cummins had a different view, especially if an All-Ireland final was decided by a shootout. “What better way than two weeks to Christmas with a chance to save a penalty to win an All-Ireland final for your county," said Cummins. "It’s what you dream about."

For the takers though, the flipside is a potential nightmare that no player should be tormented with, and reminded of, for the rest of his days. Because any player who misses a decisive penalty in a big match shootout is likely to be remembered – for all the wrong reasons – forever.

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