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'Smart' sliotar well on the way

GAA concerned over performance of different balls

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Currently, all sliotars sold and used in Ireland are produced in Pakistan. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Currently, all sliotars sold and used in Ireland are produced in Pakistan. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Currently, all sliotars sold and used in Ireland are produced in Pakistan. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

In the opening half of a first round Laois SHC tie against Clough-Ballacolla in O'Moore Park on August 3 last year, Abbeyleix scored a point directly from one of Enda Rowland's puck-outs.

The wind blew stiff and straight down pitch towards the town end that afternoon in Portlaoise.

Rowland's strike bounced on a hard, dry surface before it hopped over Danny Hanlon's crossbar.

But the All Star nominated 'keeper, who has amassed more than 50 points for Laois despite only ever playing in goals, landed his puck-out just a foot outside the Clough-Ballacolla square.

Only slightly more venom in the strike and Rowland could conceivably have split the posts cleanly.

As it happened, Hanlon, the Clough-Ballacolla 'keeper, did the same thing earlier last year when he scored straight from a restart during a Laois county league game against Rosenallis.

In fact, on the same afternoon in O'Moore Park that Rowland scored, Laois reserve 'keeper Thomas Dunphy did the same for Camross against Borris-Kilcotton in the curtain-raiser.

The only difference being that Dunphy's point came from play after taking a back pass and launching one over from only slightly nearer, having ventured to his own 14-yard line before letting fly.

Once considered freak occurrences, these feats are part of a growing trend.

Hurling goalkeepers are scoring with much greater frequency in recent seasons, although in most cases they're supplementing their team's tallies from long-range frees.

But the possibility of pointing from puck outs, even wind-assisted, has obvious ramifications for hurling.

At a time when the game's best free-takers are casually stroking placed balls over from 80 metres plus, the distance the sliotar is travelling with one strike is a source of growing concern for the GAA.

It is in this context that the Games Development and Research department of Croke Park have spent the last decade attempting to devise a standardised sliotar.

Almost all of the focus on the proposed 'smart sliotar' - as it has become known - has been about its appearance.

Luminous

Already trialled in the 'Super 11s' series in Boston and New York, the new ball is predominantly luminous yellow with red stitching and black rims.

Several detailed optical studies have concluded that this move away from tradition will significantly enhance the sliotar's visibility to players, officials and particularly spectators.

But upmost on the GAA's list of priorities, of far greater importance than optimising its appearance, is preserving the integrity of the sport by regulating the capabilities of the ball being used.

This has proven to be a complicated task.

Currently, the GAA license 36 different sliotar manufacturers but a pronounced variation in performance has prompted Croke Park to examine bringing the balls into line under stricter guidelines.

Currently, on big match days, each county nominates their preferred brand, meaning two different balls, with their distinct feel, materials and aerodynamics are being used in the same game.

A study conducted 13 years ago revealed that when pucked out at full capacity, the Cummins-brand ball travelled 13 yards further than an O'Neill's one.

In any other sport (other than golf, where players use only their own ball) it's difficult to envisage a similar scenario.

Imagine an All-Ireland football final where two brands of size 5 were being constantly swapped in and out of play, with as much as a 15% variance in how far it will fly when kicked at full power.

Yet this is the situation in which the GAA finds itself with sliotars, one which has led to countless incidents of players and teams attempting to manipulate which ball is in play at particular times during matches in an effort to gain an advantage.

And this is where Kilkenny-based company Greenfields Digital Sports Technologies (GDST) entered the equation.

In 2011, Tomás Mullins and Rory Williams of DGST made a presentation to the Hurling Development Committee (HDC) proposing a solution.

Central to that aim was a microchip the company had developed which is implanted into the ball's core, an insertion that can be scanned with an android device or android mobile phone.

The device will then verify the ball's provenance and authenticity.

It is envisaged that hurling referees will have the capacity to perform this scan to ensure the authenticity of the ball being used in the game.

Ergo, all sliotars used at inter-county matches will be uniform, ensuring a level playing field.

How will this limit the distance the ball travels?

Initially it won't. At least not significantly.

Satisfied

But once the GAA are satisfied that there is conformity in all sliotars being used across the country at inter-county level, they can then work with suppliers to alter its constitution.

There are other benefits.

Currently, all sliotars sold and used in Ireland are produced in Pakistan.

GDST produce their core in Ireland before the product is shipped to a stitching facility in Asia, which is audited to comply with ethical production standards surrounding employee age and fair pay, an issue the GAA are understandably vigilant around.

Ideally, the GAA intend to divert all supply chains from Pakistan to approved manufactures in Ireland, who will brand these balls for each individual supplier. A guaranteed retail price of between €5 and €6 has already been agreed.

Perhaps most interesting is the volume of data the ball's technology can produce.

Although the initial intended function of the chip is simply verify a sliotar's provenance, GDST have developed it in such a way that already, it can provide instant readings for distance, speed, number of times struck etc.

As a coaching aid, in the automatic collation of data for stats teams and for TV broadcasters, the range of possibilities could be revolutionary.

There is also the potential for the ball to resolve issues around score detection, although this is not currently a high GAA priority.

That one company did the majority of the early exploratory work on the project presented its own challenges for the GAA, who brought a second manufacturer, O'Neill's, into the process to avoid issues around monopolies on production.

Central Council were due to vote the new sliotar into being on January 18, although the motion was pulled in advance of the meeting.

But despite the current cessation of activity at all levels of the GAA, there is now strong support in its upper offices for the completion of this project.

As such, the implementation of these new sliotars in time for the start of the 2021 season is now a strong possibility, exactly a decade after the process began.