Saturday 10 December 2016

Clash of ash and plastic pretenders

Finding an alternative to wooden hurls has a long and colourful history

Dermot Crowe

Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30

The Dublin hurler Ryan O’Dwyer is one of the high-profile players to endorse the Cúltec product, which is now a settled market player. Picture credit: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile
The Dublin hurler Ryan O’Dwyer is one of the high-profile players to endorse the Cúltec product, which is now a settled market player. Picture credit: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile

In 1977, a launch took place in Dublin that promised something new and revolutionary to the ancient game of hurling.

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With concerns over a diminishing ash supply encouraging innovators to come up with alternatives, April of that year saw the official release in the capital of a ‘virtually unbreakable’ synthetic hurl made of plastic components.

Some of a certain vintage will recall the Wavin hurley’s short-lived impact, the hopes for this new product eventually petering out like the grey-white imitation itself. The product was the result of 18 months work at the Wavin manufacturing plant in Balbriggan and the company at the time spiritedly challenged the cynics who doubted it could be done.

‘Plastic hurleys? They laughed at first at the very idea,’ one advert line ran. ‘But then they played with the Camán Wavin — and now it has caught on with schools around the country.’

Certainly schools at the time did get their hands on Wavin hurls but problems soon emerged that would prove that the Gael and the plastic hurl had irreconcilable differences. Prominent among the list of reservations was the sharply unpleasant sensation experienced when two plastic hurls met with some force — sending a painful shudder up the holder’s arm. Their hard and durable material wasn’t sympathetic in bodily contact. Ultimately the plastic pretender didn’t feel natural enough to supplant ash or challenge it in the market as a viable alternative.

Wavin had been making plastic piping in Balbriggan since the early 1960s and making hurls was an unusual and quirky diversion. The decision was largely the result of the enthusiasm of the company’s marketing manager of the time, a Tipperary native named Seán Kennedy, who is now deceased. Kennedy came from Clonmel and hurled for the local St Mary’s side before work took him away from home, to Galway for a time and then to Dublin.

“I think this in an excellent hurley for juveniles,” said the Dublin chairman Jimmy Gray at the time of the launch almost 40 years ago. “And when a larger version of the stick is produced I am sure that adult hurlers will also accept it as a first-class substitute for the ash hurley.”

The decision to come up with a synthetic hurley alternative followed a conversation between Kennedy and the hurling historian Liam Ó Caithnia, who died in 2011. “The salesman was a Tipp man and he had this idea of making a Wavin hurl,” says Gray all these years later. “He asked me and Jim Boggan (Dublin hurling manager at the time) to try it out in Croke Park one day. I mean it was ok but it never really took off. He was very keen on it and saw it as an alternative to the ash hurl. He did a lot of work on it too.”

The Wavin hurl was intended for the juveniles and camogie sectors initially, with a 32-inch model unveiled. But within a month of the launch there were issues with the weight in match play as it was found to be too heavy. Jim Comberton, a PRO for Wavin, claimed the “response (to the new hurl) was enthusiastic all round” but they decided to reduce the weight by 15 per cent to 18 ounces. They also found that the smooth texture of the plastic was not warmly received and they needed to replace it with a rougher outline to make it feel more like wood.

“They did not live up to the expectations that he (Kennedy) had for them,” says Joe O’Rourke, who worked as a sales manager for the engineering division in Wavin at the time. “I doubt if you would find one (hurl) there now. I doubt if you would find anyone there at the moment to even talk about it. When I left there were 350 people working there; I think it is down to 85 now.”

It was claimed at the time of the launch that the hurl was virtually unbreakable — young kids at the time tested its claims by bending to such extremes that the toe almost touched the handle top. It had a suggested retail price of £2.40.

O’Rourke worked in Wavin for almost 40 years. “Sure they were grand but they’d sting the hell out of you. You could never say they were the same as an ash hurl. We had a big stock of them piled up in the factory and I remember this man came in, a priest down in Cavan, he was training the junior camogie team and he said they trained in a car park over the winter and he thought they’d be ideal for playing ground hurling. God he took away 50-60 of them, and he came back to tell me, as far as I know, that they won the junior camogie title. It could have been 1978 or ’79 or ’80 or something like that. He thought they were great for training, though he did admit they still used the ordinary hurleys for matches. He used to say the art of ground hurling was nearly gone at that time.”

O’Rourke says that the idea was worthwhile but the technology was lacking, with none of the same support systems you have now. The modern Cúltec synthetic hurl that has been approved by the GAA since the latter end of the last decade and is used by some inter-county hurlers and many at club level, had the sting problem eradicated by creating a hollow core. Had the earlier pioneers the same level of expertise and investment they might have cracked it too.

But for a while Wavin were very supportive of the idea, says O’Rourke. “They were a talking point at the time but it fizzled out. The product wasn’t totally suitable. Shops were keen to stock them, there was no trouble getting them out the first time, it was the repeat business that was a problem . . . some kept them for souvenirs. It came to the stage where you had to decide are you going to stay with them or get rid of them.”

It wasn’t all a waste of time and effort for Wavin however, not being their core business in the first place. “The only thing we could get out of it was it was publicity — the company got publicity that you could not buy,” says O’Rourke. “I would say that was the only positive out of it. It wasn’t brought out for publicity, it was brought out thinking that if this takes off this could be great. The technology wasn’t there.”

John Grehan, one of the founders of Cúltec, remembers Wavin in circulation. “I am 54 years of age, I tried one once and the sting out of them! The problem was that they were ahead of their time, in that the technology wasn’t there to complete it. Because the Irish game is so parochial, nobody like the bigger companies applied their technology to it.”

Cúltec are experiencing a sales spike in their coloured hurls. “That has become one of our biggest sellers at underage,” says Grehan. “I would compare it to the mobile phone, where it is a phone to you and I, but to the youngster it is a lot more. We, for want of a better word, made it sexy.” This year around 22,500 Cúltec hurls were sold, around eight or nine per cent of the market. It has a growing export market as well. 

The GAA also made an ill-fated attempt to release a carbon fibre hurl during the presidency of Joe McDonagh, with NUIG involved on its technology. Around £150,000 of the GAA’s money is believed to have been spent developing the Ashmore hurl in the late 1990s but the project met with fierce resistance from traditional ash suppliers and the GAA eventually rowed back. 

According to recent Teagasc figures 450,000 hurleys are produced in Ireland every year and 80 per cent of those are made from imported ash. Around 22,000 hectares of ash is grown in Ireland, with 75 per cent of that privately owned and the remainder owned by Coillte. Of the imported ash most comes in from Holland and eastern Europe.

It is anticipated that by 2020 Ireland will have enough home-sourced ash to supply the hurley makers. Ash is still by far the preferred choice, being strong and flexible and having a good capacity for shock absorbency. And Irish ash is more favoured because of the country’s mild and damp climate. Other wood types have proved unsuitable for hurley manufacture.

The Chinese-manufactured Cúltec hurley has satisfied rigorous safety testing standards set out by the GAA. Made from a composite of synthetic epoxy, nylon and some graphite, it is more durable than ash and has a generous sweet spot which makes for better and more consistent striking. Dublin hurler Ryan O’Dwyer is one of the high-profile players to endorse the product, which is now a settled market player. In a recent All-Ireland club hurling final eight of the players on show were using Cúltec hurls. 

But they owe something to Seán Kennedy and those earlier pioneers at Wavin for at least having had a go and challenging the old orthodoxy. The likelihood is that synthetic hurls, or some mix of ash and synthetic, will become more prevalent in the future, even with Ireland expecting to be self-sufficient in ash within a few years.

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