I play hurling competitively and I have done since I was about 10 years old…so let’s say 25+ years on the field trying to win games basically. Fortunately I’ve won a lot more games than I’ve lost over those years and I’ve learned a lot about the game through those defeats and victories.
Up to the semi-final stage of the 2016 All Ireland Senior Hurling Championship it has been a very poor year for hurling at the top level, there was little or no excitement until the ‘Big 4’ met in the semi-finals but up to that it was a bit depressing to see Dublin, Limerick, Cork and Clare fizzle out of the series without even a whimper.
In the meantime and quite unexpectedly the ugly duckling of the GAA family, Gaelic Football, is having a bumper season full of competitive games and surprise victories that have made it really interesting after many years of being duller than dishwater and practically unwatchable.
So what’s gone wrong in hurling this year?
Unfortunately there has been an attempt to blindly ignore hurling’s laws of physics by several head coaches in counties such as Clare, Dublin, Limerick and even Cork to a certain extent. They have not been successful.
It would appear that the origins of this ill-fated attempt to deconstruct Hurling and re-invent it as something else can be linked to a precedent set in Gaelic Football in 2012 by a certain Jimmy McGuinness in Donegal who turned a team of journey-men players into All-Ireland champions in just 18 months through executing a revolutionary defensive system that turned the sport of Gaelic Football on it’s head for several years.
The problem however with borrowing tactics from the sport of Gaelic Football and applying them to the sport of Hurling might appear obvious even to the non-expert, but not to some of hurling’s head coaches it seems.
On a cognitive level one could observe that in Gaelic Football the players don’t have wooden sticks in their hands and they don’t wear helmets on their heads.
Taking the analysis a little deeper would reveal that the ball used in Gaelic
Football is more than 10x times bigger in diameter but yet it’s only 3.5x times heavier than a Hurling sliotar because it’s inflated with air. Without getting too ‘sciency’ or patronising about it you might be starting to think that this big air-inflated ball is not going to work quite as well as a missile when airborne due to it’s much greater surface area (causing drag) and it’s much lower core density.
So in summary we have 2 very different sports here with just a few things in common: They have 15 players per team and they’re both played on the same size playing pitch, which is 13,000 square metres incidentally (145m x 90m).
The Physics of Hurling
Hurling is bound by pretty strong laws of physics that really affect how you might approach playing the game to win… and of course winning a game in Hurling works like it does in most sports by scoring more than your opponent within the 70 minute duration of the game.
Hurling by Numbers
- Most inter-county hurling players are capable of striking the ball a distance of 100m at a speed of 40 metres per second
- The ball can therefore be moved from the last line of defence to the highest line of attack in less than 3 seconds. In Gaelic Football this takes more than 10 seconds, involving at least 2 plays by different players.
- Attempts to score a point in Hurling can be made from a distance of about 90m by most inter-county hurling players, rendering deep defensive tactics less effective. Gaelic footballers can score from a distance of 45m when unopposed.
- The hurling ball or ‘Sliotar’ is very small with a 7cm diameter and weighs 120g, it is also quite hard and has a solid core, so it travels well in the air as a result.
- Due to the small and dense nature of the ball in combination with the lever mechanism of swinging the 1m wooden stick to hit it means that players can strike a Sliotar at a speed of 140km/h or 40 metres per second.
- All of this means that it’s relatively more difficult for goalkeepers to stop shots on goal in Hurling compared with other sports such as Gaelic Football.
- As a Hurling goalkeeper you are faced with a small object travelling towards you very fast from a short distance away and you have a large goal mouth area to protect of 16 metres squared.
- The Hurley stick used to block shots on goal can have a maximum width of just 13cm at the widest point, providing a surface area of just 0.06 metres squared to stop a ball which is 0.015 metres squared.
- Even with a very tight defensive system and a lot of players in deep defensive positions it is still possible for opponents to score a goal at any moment in a hurling game through a shot from a distance of 25m from the goals.
- In the sport of Hurling, goals win games.
In summary the coaches of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Clare need to put much more emphasis on their respective teams ability to score 2+ goals per game to have a chance of defeating any of the ‘Big 4’ teams.
Also the negative tactic of defending by numbers has to be replaced by coaching the skills of defending individually and building up the team-work of defending as a unit of 6 players, rather than relying on a sweeper to ‘outsource’ responsibility for actually doing some proper defending. That means each defender improving their man-marking, getting to the ball first more often and getting more tackles in while conceding fewer frees.
Let’s hope for better things in 2017!