Running the rule over hurling’s seven most beguiling qualities

Too early for some, too late for most, hurling season returns in earnest today with the game’s beguiling qualities never being so apparent. But is it what now subverts the rules of the game that helps make it appealing?

The steps

As plain as day, rule 1.7 states that “when a player is in possession of the ball it may be carried in the hand for a maximum of four consecutive steps”. Then again, the rule goes on to state the ball can “be held in the hand no longer than the time needed to take four steps”. Whatever that means.

The four step rule is indeed the most abused in the game and perhaps it is fortunate referees turn such a blind eye to it with the proliferation of “rucks” (the Hurling 2020 committee’s word, not ours) in the current game. As apparent as there is a need to increase the step count, the Hurling 2020’s survey found there was little appetite for such a change. If the rule won’t change then players will and plenty have been batting the ball onto the ground and returning it to their hand to restart a possession. There is nothing about that skill in the rulebook but then nothing to contradict it either.

The tackle

Last summer, Paul Kinnerk wrote an intriguing piece in this newspaper about the tackle. “Players that manage to delay attacking players forward momentum with correct “frontal” use of hands, arms and chest that doesn’t break 90 degrees are being punished inconsistently,” noted the Limerick native, who has since returned to a coaching role with Clare’s hurlers. “The “hook” and “block” are of course crucial defensive skills too but are inadequate alone with teams running with the ball more and more.”

He continued: “Furthermore, “swarm tackling” (a group of players tackling one) is being inconsistently punished. “Swarm tackling” is one of the highest forms of intensity and should be rewarded when used correctly rather than punished. It signals two things: firstly, it is rewarding the risk taken by a defender to leave his opponent and tackle another opponent, and secondly it is punishing the attacking player for dwelling too long on the ball and allowing such a situation to take place.” There is just one line about tackle in the rulebook. Like Gaelic football, it is too much of a grey area.

The sliotar

Although the GAA are working on a uniform core for all sliotars, an issue for them is the rim, which varies greatly from one company to another. Those with smaller rims (according to the rulebook, the minimum height should be 2.0mm and width 3.6mm) are favoured by most players because they’re connecting with more of the ball leading to more spectacular goals and points from distance. However, some rims have been measured as being less than 2mm. Then again, GAA director of games development Pat Daly has suggested there may come a time when a sliotar has no rims.

The spare hand

A phrase that has come to prominence courtesy of Dónal Óg Cusack and it remains a genuine issue in the game. Any under-age coach who still instructs his players to keep their two hands on the hurley at all times will find their advice antiquated by what is seen on TV. It was the running game so endorsed and mastered by Cusack and his Cork colleagues in the 2000s that precipitated more and more use of the spare hand to decelerate the progress of an opponent. But consider just how dangerous the game might be were players ordered to keep their hands in contact with the hurley when tackling. Strangely, the spare hand may actually be the lesser of two evils.

The hurley

The GAA are loathe to instruct referees to police players on pretty much everything ranging from mouthguards in Gaelic football to helmets in hurling so don’t expect to see any match official any time soon pull up a player for using a hurley with a bás more than 13cm. That is the maximum size according to the rulebook but is flouted by many players. Yet the increased sweet spot has contributed to more scores and also indicates the great strength of players to be able to swing a wider stick so quickly and precisely.

The free

Going back to Nicky English and DJ Carey’s time, there’s been a contention that the spirit of the free-taking rule in hurling has been contravened. The rule states the ball must be lifted with the hurley and struck but the charge against English, Carey and the generations they inspired was that in lifting the ball they also balanced it so as to improve their chances of making a better strike. That may be so but the act remains an art and has led to more long-range pointed frees.

The penalty

Hurling 2020 chairman Liam Sheedy maintains the conversion rate of one-v-one penalties will improve this year after a poorer than expected return last season. Takers have not yet mastered timing their run and strike on or before the 20 metre line. Providing the attacking and fouled team with an appropriate reward for a cynical and/or desperate foul in the penalty area is absolutely vital for the integrity of the game.

At the same time the chances of scoring a penalty appear better than before, that goalkeepers have opportunities, however slim, of being heroes adds to the drama of the game.


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