Ryan O'Dwyer: I couldn't go back using ash hurls again after the Cultec
Synthetic hurls on the rise against the grain, writes Michael Verney
After making a Happy Gilmore-esque run at a golf ball and nailing it down the middle of the fairway, John Grehan suddenly had an idea - "why couldn't someone develop a hurl that would hit the sweet spot and strike the ball straight and true every time?"
At first the Offaly entrepreneur laughed, but a seed had been sown. Quantities of Irish ash were dwindling in the early noughties and the cost of hurls rose sharply with importation of foreign timber increasing. But they were shattering at an alarming rate.
And there was a niche in the GAA market for a reliable 'stick', which would be more durable and have greater consistency, so Grehan, and business partner Tom Wright, decided to pursue the idea of making 'original' hurls overseas.
With the Wavin hurley debacle of the 1970s still fresh in people's minds, many hurling disciples scoffed at the notion of a move away from the traditional ash variety, but sports equipment was evolving.
Wooden varieties of tennis racquets and golf clubs were a thing of the past as use of graphite gained traction, so Grehan felt the time was right for a synthetic alternative in hurling. And so the Cultec hurley, made in China by a Taiwanese company, was born.
Naturally, the Asians were curious about the idea of a game where players were wielding what they viewed as weapons and visited these shores on numerous occasions as part of their research.
Grehan, who helps operate Cultec hurleys along with his son Gerry from their Ferbane base, fondly remembers the Asians' initial experience of hurling and the manufacturer's immediate reactions.
"In the middle of attending a Kilkenny club game he rang home to China and said he was expecting someone to be killed. He couldn't stay long on the phone because he was expecting it to happen soon," Grehan says with a smile.
"But, coming from a fresh perspective, they were able to see things we couldn't and ways of improving the stick and we compared our product with the best of the best in Ireland with regards to flexibility, break strength, strike and deflection."
A battery of field and laboratory tests were undertaken to ensure the soundness of the product and having observed many improvements in the quality of sliotars, helmets, boots and jerseys, Grehan felt there was no reason why the hurley should be excluded from this technological revolution.
"Hurling is a very parochial game being Irish-only. Most of the big sports in the world are international, be it tennis or golf, they have all evolved and have developed from wood to graphite and modern materials so there was no reason for hurling to be left behind."
Roughly 500 hurls were sold out of his garage in 2007, but as they celebrate their 10-year anniversary the number snowballed to 20,000 and they now hold nearly 10pc of the market as the clash of the Cultec gathers more traction.
Things are not always rosy in the garden, however, with snide remarks regularly coming from members of the hurling fraternity. "We were at an exhibition in Croke Park and a guy came up and looked at the Cultec and said, 'Ah I wouldn't use one of those'," Grehan says.
I asked him, 'Does he have turf?' He said. 'Yeah' and I asked, 'How does he bring it home?' 'By tractor and trailer of course'. I asked, 'Why don't you still bring it home in the horse and cart?' It's very hard to change 150 years of hurling tradition, you won't do it overnight.
"We're not that long in existence and to be at that volume of sales already is testament to the product. We often get slated but it's used by so many people because of its distance, consistency and improved accuracy. That's the kind of feedback we're getting back."
It was once reported that if legendary Kilkenny manager Brian Cody saw a Cultec in Nowlan Park the owner would feel his wrath but even the Cats are using them with current All-Star goalkeeper Eoin Murphy, as well as the majority of other net minders, carrying one in their bag for extra distance.
Clare's James McInerney, who denied Tipp legend Brendan Cummins a 10th Poc Fada win earlier this year, and Dublin hurler Ryan O'Dwyer are two of the most recognised names to use the Cultec, which is the only GAA-approved synthetic hurley on the market and has some unique advantages over the ash alternative.
"The ash hurl is a fantastic product but you couldn't buy one online because you need to know the weight, the feel, the consistency. But you could buy a Cultec online because you're getting the same thing you got the last time and it's consistent," Grehan says.
O'Dwyer has been using them since 2009 and echoes that sentiment. "I wouldn't be able to go back to using ash," he says. "When you break an ash hurley, it turns your game upside down. I've had times when you have the perfect hurley and you're on cloud nine and you're flying it.
"Then you break it and you feel like someone's after dying, it turns your confidence inside out. When you break a Cultec, and it's rare enough that you would, you can pick up another one that's the exact same and continue on as normal.
"I got a good bit of grief at first and still get some today about using a plastic hurley and all that but it works for me and thousands of other people, particularly at club level, so if you haven't used one then you shouldn't judge them."
Available in four colours: pink, blue, green and the traditional ash-coloured version, the most popular sizes are the 30- and 32-inch with customers continuing to purchase as they rise through the ranks. It looks like the clash of the Cultec is here to stay.