At first, it felt like just another niggle. Matthew Butturini ranks among the fastest runners in world hockey, but on that nippy, February afternoon in Lucknow five years ago, he was a little slow to react when the ball was injected from a penalty corner.
As the first rusher, it was his responsibility to charge out of the goal first and close down VR Raghunath’s drag-flick angles. “Because of the slow start and the line I was running, Raghunath’s shot hit me flush on the knee,” Butturini recalls.
He fell down clutching his right knee but there wasn’t any lingering pain. The Australian defender, playing for Mumbai Magicians, carried on playing that Hockey India League match against UP Wizards, but its impact was felt a few months later.
“It was at the Oceania Cup where I started feeling a bit of pain, and it got worse from there,” Butturini says. “The impact of the ball initiated the damage — it wasn’t bad enough initially but because of my anatomy, the weight would go to that side. Over a period of time, it got so bad that it eventually I suffered a fracture.”
A fracture that would put an abrupt, and tragic, end to a promising career. Butturini, who won the Commonwealth Games and World Cup titles in 2010, could wear the golden-yellow Kookaburra jersey again. In fact, it was only last year that he could step on a hockey field.
Butturini isn’t an exception. Cases like his, in fact, are the reason why safety aspects of penalty corners are debated even today, especially for the first rushers, who often run the grave risk of injuring themselves. First rushers are perhaps the most courageous bunch in hockey, a role — like a short leg in cricket — that is fraught with danger.
They are the first ones to rush out from the four-man defence, excluding the goalkeeper, during penalty corner situations, running straight at the ball that’s often flicked at a speed of more than 100kmph. The rusher’s job is to sprint the 12m from the goal-line – where he is positioned – to the top of the D – from where the flick is taken – within seconds and close down the angle. React slow, even if it is by a hundredth of a second, and you either put yourself in peril or your team.
India’s Manpreet Singh is among the best first rushers in the world along with Germany’s Martin Haner, Australia’s Jeremy Hayward and Argentina’s Lucas Rossi. But what does it take to be one? “Least brains,” laughs Simon Orchard, Butturini’s Australia teammate. “Being brave, without being stupid,” Holland’s Argentine coach Max Caldas adds. “Most guts,” quips Kim Sang Ryul.
Ryul knows. He was the coach of the South Korean team at the Sydney Olympics, where his players heroically put their bodies on the line against Pakistan in the semifinals while trying to keep out Sohail Abbas’s powerful drag-flicks. South Korea won that match, but Ryul was forced to field a depleted side in the final because the three players who played the role of first rushers were injured. “In Sydney, it was suicide running. Players just ran for love of their country,” says Caldas, who was a part of the Argentine team at those Games.
Given a choice, no one would willingly sign up for this. But the unique demands and inability of most players to do it make first rushers a premium commodity, according to Germany captain Haner, one of the best exponents of the art. “It is an important role that not everyone would want to do it,” he says.
AFFECTING CORNER CONVERSIONS
Speed, mobility and courage are seen as the three key attributes needed for this role, but it has evolved over the years. Rather than mindless running towards the flicker, it has become a strategic position, one that can affect the outcome of a penalty corner.
The penalty corner defence at the World Cup has followed a pattern across all 16 teams. The moment the ball is injected, the goalkeeper takes a step to his right, covering that half. The first-rushers tend to run a sharp line blocking the left while there is a man behind him on the post, who is in fact called the postman, as a cover in case the ball goes past the rusher.
This design has resulted in a sharp reduction in penalty corner conversions over the last few years as the attacking sides haven’t yet been able to figure out a way to beat this trap. Butturini says the mentality of the rusher is to prevent a scoring opportunity no matter what. “You are the first person to get out there – even the goalkeeper reacts to the shot. So if you can put enough pressure, you can affect the play in a corner more than anyone else,” he says.
But it requires the ability to defy several natural instincts – like not flinching when the shot is taken, not close his eyes when the ball is hurled right at him, and, most importantly, not back out at the last minute, fearing an injury. Butturini compares it to a cricketer playing a pull shot.
“There are plenty cricketers who can’t play a crack pull-shot because deep down, you know if you miss the ball, you’re going to get hit. Whereas someone like Ricky Ponting was great because he said at training, he would get hit,” Butturini says. “Knowing that he could take the hit and be okay, it’s an important mentality to have… I think that’s what most first runners think, they know they can get hit but it’s not the end of the world.”
Of course, getting hit could end up ruining an athlete’s career. Since the lower body is extremely susceptible to injuries in these scenarios, the safety aspect from corners a perennial topic of debate. But International Hockey Federation’s decision to relax a few rules has ensured it’s not as dangerous as, say, the Sydney Games and also made the rushers a little more courageous.
Post Sydney, especially the South Korea-Pakistan match, the biggest change in rule has been that the rushers can no longer ‘run down the barrel’. Back then, the players would sprint straight towards the flickers and often ending up colliding with them. They were ready to take the blow, which caused a lot of injuries, but not let the ball past them. The rushers can no longer run directly in the path of the ball or the flicker.
Equipment, too, has changed. Till five years ago, players were only allowed to wear gloves and a thin face mask, but now they have an entire kit set up behind the goal, which they wear in the 40-second break to take the corners. Ireland custodian David Harte calls the rushers ‘second goalkeepers’ because of the number of equipment they wear. It includes gloves – which are bigger than what were used earlier – face masks and abdomen guards apart from shin pads that the players already wear.
But the biggest change has been allowing the rushers to wear knee pads. “It’s the single-most important change. It’s made the players a lot braver,” Butturini says. “The issue all along was knees.”
Butturini knows. That’s how his career ended, after all.