Thursday 20 June 2019

Martin Breheny: 'A five-point goal, two points for other scores and an end to 'rugby-isation' of hurling'

 

Pat Daly, the GAA's director of games and research. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Pat Daly, the GAA's director of games and research. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Any advance on 50 points per hurling game? 'Yes' is the definitive answer if the soaring strike rate of recent seasons is a reliable guide.

The average scoring total in this year's championship has zoomed past 51 points per game, more than a third higher than in the 1990s. It's not a one-off either as the average in 2017-2018 was 48 points.

Tipperary hit Waterford for 2-30 last Sunday, having scored 2-28 against Cork a week earlier. They shot 11 wides against Cork and nine against Waterford, so clearly their overall return could have been considerably higher in both games.

Cork scored 1-24 against Tipp, a return that would have won most games in previous decades, yet finished seven points adrift of Liam Sheedy's hotshots.

The average total score in the last eight All-Ireland finals, including replays in 2012-2013-2014, was 50.5 points, compared with 37.3 in the 1990s.

The goal-rate has dropped over the years, leaving the massive aggregate increase to come via the points route, with scores being fired over from huge distances.

The current era is generally perceived as being among the best for hurling in a very long time, but is the high-scoring masking the demise of some of the game's basic skills?

Illegally

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And what of the contention that, in most cases, it's being achieved illegally by using hurleys which are much bigger than what's allowed under rule?

"If very high scoring in every game is what you want, then everything is fine, but there's more to it than that. People come to see the skills of hurling and good contests, but just because there are lots of scores, it doesn't always mean that there's great skill involved in getting them," said Pat Daly, GAA director of games and research.

He has concerns over aspects of the game, including what he describes as the "'rugby-isation' of hurling".

He also believes that the value of a goal should be increased from three to five points and that two points be awarded if scored with specific skills.

These include a volley, a drop-puck or a strike off the ground. A goal was valued at five points for a period in the 1890s, but has remained at three points for the last 123 years.

"Why can't we revisit the value of a goal, even on an experimental basis? Just because it has been three points for a very long time doesn't necessarily make it right. Increasing the value to five points would encourage teams to come up with ways of getting more of them.

"As for skills like overhead striking, ground hurling, volleying and drop pucks, you hardly ever see them now. It's all about getting the ball into the hand and with the ball being driven enormous distances, some games are being decided from well beyond the halfway line.

"Accurate long-range striking is a skill but at what stage do you say the ball is being driven too far and taking other skills out of the game. People like to see contests, but there are fewer of them when the ball is travelling such long distances," said Daly.

He is also concerned over a tackling trend, involving the use of the 'free' hand.

"I'd call it the 'rugby-isation' of hurling, where a player has the hurley in one hand and is using the free hand around the opponent's body. It's happening an awful lot now and is obviously being coached," he said.

The increase in long-range scoring has been one of the biggest developments in hurling's evolution since the turn of the Millennium and, in particular, over the last decade. The 1990s closed out with Cork beating Kilkenny by 0-13 to 0-12 in the All-Ireland final, a total which Tipperary and Cork reached in 30 minutes last Sunday week and which was one point fewer than the half-time score between Cork and Limerick Last Sunday.

Stronger players and, even more significantly, lighter sliotars and bigger hurleys have combined to make scoring from huge distances an integral part of the modern game.

Attempt

Achieving uniformity with the manufacture of balls is difficult and, as a result, there can be wide variations.

Research is ongoing in an attempt to fit a chip in each ball, which will send a reading to a phone app so that it's possible to check if the specifications are correct.

Daly said that in the case of one club last year, approved sliotars were used in only two of 11 games.

The modern-day sliotar is much lighter than used to be the case, the impact of which is to have more scores from massive distances.

Eddie Keher, one of the best ball-strikers of all-time, recalls when pointing a '70' ('65' nowadays) was regarded as a fine achievement. Despite his status as one of the best free-takers in history, his comfort zone extended to around 55 yards, with Pat Henderson taking over from further out.

"The ball and the hurley were a lot different then. The ball was a lot heavier and the hurleys weren't as good as they are today. It's like golf. Technology has enabled players to drive the ball a lot further in golf and it's the same in hurling.

"Whether it's good for the game to have the ball travelling 110 or 120 metres all the time is another matter," said Keher, whose Kilkenny career embraced three decades (1950s-'60s-'70s).

Another contentious area is the dimension of modern hurleys, which allows for wholesale irregularities.

The rule states that the 'bas at its widest point shall not be more than 13 cms' (5.1 inches), but that's ignored as no checks ever take place. Daly said that many hurleys are 18/19 cms, or even wider for goalkeepers, but players know they will get away with breaking the rule.

"Imagine what would happen if referees started measuring hurleys. There would be uproar. And that's the problem. A rule like that is in place for a good reason but there would be fierce opposition to enforcing it.

"The modern hurley is completely different to what it used to be," said Daly, an ex-Waterford hurler.

As of now, the GAA have no plans to examine whether the ever-increasing scoring rate, especially points, is benefiting the game or merely turning it into a shoot-out, which comes at the expense of other skills.

What's beyond doubt is that the upward trend continues at a rate few would have imagined in the 1990s when a total of 20 points or fewer were enough to win six of the 10 All-Ireland finals.

Irish Independent

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