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Mon 03-Jul-2006 21:03
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The Science of Sliothars
by Eamon Gormley
Since hurling is a game whose story stretches back before the dawn of history itself, the humble Sliothar has had plenty of time to evolve.
In ancient times, the ball would have had a wooden core wrapped in rope and leather, and other combinations of materials included animal hair in the mix. Bronze is often cited as another material that may have been used. This might sound a bit hard and heavy against your ashwood stick, but since Setanta's hurley was apparently made of silver then I'm sure he had no trouble handling the vibrations from his puckout.
In the early GAA era, sliothars had many problems. The brown colour made them difficult to see. Shapes were inconsistent, as were sizes, weights, and durability. Some balls would get soggy or change shape during the course of a game.
It was a Limerick man named Johnny McAuliffe, born in 1896, who was credited with the modern design. He came up with the cork core that helped to reduce the weight and make the ball less cumbersome. His other innovation, the white tanned pigskin cover, was more durable, waterproof, and easier to see.
The composition of the modern ball has settled around the cork core wrapped in threading with a two-part leather cover stitched together on the outside.
None of these things individually may sound like a big deal, but the adoption this design helped to move hurling towards the high-speed modern sporting spectacle that it has become.
A few years ago there was a slight deviation from the established design. O'Neills produced a ball with a rubber core, and when it was introduced into the Munster Championship it caught a lot of people by surprise. As anyone who has used an all-weather training sliothar will know, rubber has a lot of give and is very springy. The rubber-cored ball was a lot livelier than what many players were used to, and its higher bounce took the Cork team by surprise when they faced Waterford in the 2003 Munster final. This must certainly have been a factor in how the best hurling was played by Waterford in the first half, and it took Cork a while to settle into the game to make their comeback.
At the Esat BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition in Dublin in 2004, some students from Tower Hill CBS presented research they had carried out into the effects of the core material on ball behavior. Using a Garda speed gun, they found that the rubber-cored ball had an uncontrollable bounce and traveled a lot faster, especially when wet.
The rubber core was soon abandoned in favor of cork, and the GAA is becoming a lot more fussy about manufacturing standards.
A lack of consistency in sliothars has drawn the attention of such luminaries as DJ Carey, Brian Corcoran, Ger Cunningham, Brian Whelahan of Offaly and Gary Kirby of Limerick. They point out that there can be a big difference in the type of balls used throughout the course of an All-Ireland hurling final. There are differences in weight, size, ability to absorb or repel water, and the size of the ridges, the latter being the biggest cause of complaints. Preferences seem to vary from county to county. The speed and standard of play at county level has advanced so much that even a small variation in a ball's properties could affect the outcome of a game.
According to the GAA's Official Guide, the circumference of a sliothar can vary from 23 to 25 centimeters, and the weight can vary from 110 to 130 grams. According to the aforementioned hurling stars, variations even within these guidelines can have a noticeable impact at the top level of the game.
Congress 2007 is set to have a motion on the floor that will tighten up the specifications for sliothar manufacturers. Hurling balls will have to conform to the British Standard BS270. This is a good thing. British Standards are a highly respected set of specifications used by industry to make things better
The only problem is that cork is an organic material, and it is impossible to scientifically fine-tune it. The wine industry has been using synthetic materials in response to occasional cork shortages, so there is perhaps some scope for more research by the sliothar manufacturers.
In addition, perhaps top-level games should only be played with balls from one particular batch used in that game.
At the end of the day, the outcome of a game should be decided by the skill and fitness of the players, not by a team having an advantage, however slight, in having a noticeably different ball than the visiting team is used to. The scientific standardization of sliothars is an example of how the GAA, despite being an amateur organization, can take a more professional approach to the running of its games.
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