Last weekend’s games (18th/19th February) in the National Hurling League saw a number of penalties given as a result of ‘infringements in the square’ (i.e. fouls in the penalty area to non-GAA people). What is interesting about this is the fact that a number of these penalties didn’t result in a goal. Both the42.ie (here) and the Irish Independent (here) give statistics on the recent success rate of penalties in hurling. The42.ie state that out of 6 penalties given over the last weekend games, only 2 resulted in a goal while the Irish independent state that just three goals from eight penalties have been scored in the 12 hurling matches.
Some context is required to this story. In April 2015 a new rule was brought in where penalties could only be struck on or outside the 20 metre line. Prior to this, the ball was placed on the 20 metre line but it could be struck at any point between the 20 metre line and goal. This allowed players to lift the ball toward goal and strike at a much shorter distance making the possibility of scoring a goal almost certain (a practise best exemplified by the Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash). The rule changers recognised the potential imbalance against the attacking team with the new rule change so they also decided to reduce the number of defenders in the goal for a penalty from three to one. However based on the statistics given above it doesn’t appear as if this has done the necessary trick.
There are a couple of points worth making. The rule change has (to me) changed the way one takes a penalty. Before it was more about power than placement. Now it’s more about placement than power. I think it will take time for players to adjust to this. Colm Keys in the Irish Independent also makes an interesting observation that goalkeepers may be more confident dealing with the penalty on their own than having to rely on two other defenders. It should also be noted that the defenders were not necessarily specialist shot stoppers so aiming (with power) toward these players (and away from the goalkeeper) was usually an optimal strategy prior to the rule change. Now that option has been taken away from penalty takers.
Is there a way to address the imbalance? I think it is still unclear whether the rule change has had a detrimental effect from a statistical point of view. A proper analysis of the before and after would have to be carried out. Plus, as I said above, I think as players adjust their style of penalty taking, the number of successes should increase. In short, I wouldn’t change the penalty rule - it is possibly to early for that yet. What could be examined however is the foul which leads to the penalty. Again it’s perceived (and not proven), but there does appear to more cynical fouling taking place especially when a player is almost certain of getting a goal in open play. Perhaps the introduction of a stiffer punishment for the defender (i.e. a red card or the black card used in Gaelic football) could rebalance the odds in favour of the attacking team.