Hurling needs heavier sliotar

Darragh Flynn.

For the second Sunday in a row, Ballygiblin’s Darragh Flynn performed heroics for the Cork minors. Eight points against Tipperary including five from play, he added 1-10 in Limerick two days ago, his seventh and final free securing a draw from what must have been over 80 metres out.

For all the genuine concerns that the quality of minor hurling has dropped since moving from U18 to U17, the entertainment served up by Cork and Limerick’s teenagers flew in the face of that and it was appropriate that a strike as audacious as Flynn’s crowned the game.

It was a score that Patrick Horgan would be proud to have landed. He actually converted a placed ball from a slightly longer distance in the first half of the senior game and the similarities between the strikes was notable. More than 14 years separate the pair but power and technique are more easily transferable these days.

Strength and conditioning practices, which had hardly come in when Horgan himself was a minor, are more commonplace and ensure that age is well and truly only a number.

What links Horgan and Flynn, other than their undeniable talent, is their armoury. Like the vast majority of inter-county forwards, the bas of their hurleys appears to be oversized. Rule 4.5 of the GAA’s Official Guide Part II (equipment) states the hurley at its widest point shall not be more than 13cm. We would argue no rule is broken as much as this one but then a blind eye is turned by the authorities.

At least the sliotar is set to be standardised next year but it doesn’t seem it will get any heavier (currently it must weigh between 110 and 120 grams). Nor is it likely that the rims of it will increase in size — they must be between 2mm and 2.8mm in height and between 3.6mm and 5.4mm in width although that too is flouted. There is hope that a uniform core will ensure all sliotar brands will perform the same, but scoring points from distance should remain as easy as it has been recently.

Galway’s ability, two years ago, to win an All-Ireland title without finding the net in their last four matches was a peak season for point-scoring but then it was a sign of the times. On average, All-Ireland winning teams are scoring six points more now than they were in the 1980s or 1990s. After beating Cork and Waterford this month, Tipperary are now averaging an aggregate of 29 points per game.

For the last 10 years, Babs Keating has been calling for a heavier sliotar.

“Hurling would be far more enjoyable if there were more balls dropping in the half-back/midfield/half-forward area, but that’s not going to happen when lads are driving them the full length of the pitch,” he said in 2010. Yes, the game has never been more exciting and Keating’s fears have been dismissed as those of a backwoods traditionalist, but never has a point been cheaper.

Former Galway manager and Dublin coach, current Roscommon football manager Anthony Cunningham, wouldn’t be termed old-fashioned but he too sees value in a heftier ball.

“Firstly, the distance that you score from will be reduced,” he told this newspaper last August. “Now, a guy with a half swing or a flick of the wrists can pop the ball over the bar from 60 or 70 metres, and that’s not to take away from the guys that hurl today and their skill levels, but it’s way easier to do that than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

The scoring rate would reduce, but the question is, is that necessarily a bad thing?

The whole intention of a heavier sliotar would be to bring the action closer to the goal. Some fine work recently done by Shane Stapleton highlighted how the goal is becoming a rarer phenomenon in the game. Pointing out the six top Championship goal-scorers still playing are all over the age of 30, when they are playing the longest, may seem an obvious statistic but nobody younger is coming close to them.

One of the modern game’s greatest poachers, Lar Corbett, expressed sympathy for inside forwards now given how opponents are packing defences. The percentage play is to shoot from range. Take your points and the points will come.

Hurling will be subject to experimental rules in next year’s Allianz League and the natural inclination will be to further incentivise the goal, bumping up its value to four or five points. Before such a move is endorsed, unintended consequences must be considered. It will be in teams’ interests, particularly those who mightn’t have their opponents’ firepower, to prevent goals by whatever means.

The game has already become a haven for eagle-eyed snipers. But add a little weight to the sliotar and it can avoid being played so remotely.

Email: john.fogarty@examiner.ie

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