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Beginner's Guide to Irish Hurling

Updated: Jun 27, 2021

'Tis the season.

With the provincial championships starting today, I thought I'd create a little crash course on Irish hurling.

Here are ten things you need to know about the greatest game you've probably never heard of.

1. Speed

It’s been called the fastest game on grass, and for good reason. At a breakneck pace, hurling incorporates elements of popular North American sports, but with a unique twist.

If you like big hits in football, moonshots in baseball, and goals in soccer or hockey, this is the sport is for you. It may seem peculiar at the start, but it doesn’t take long to see the appeal of hurling.

2. The Field

The hurling pitch is massive – bigger than a soccer, football, rugby, or lacrosse field. It’s 145 M (160 yds) long and 85 M (93 yds) wide and at the ends of the field each team has a goal with extended posts to act as uprights.

(BBC Sport)

3. Scoring

There are two methods of scoring in hurling: points and goals. Goals are scored when the sliotar (the ball) is put into the net, similar to goals in hockey or soccer. Points are scored when the sliotar passes through the extended posts, similar to field goals in American football. Goals are worth three total points, while points are worth one total point.

Note: The scoreboard usually separates the scoring methods (goals/points) instead of adding them up - e.g., 2-17 (23) or 3-19 (28).

4. The Rules

So, how does the sliotar get into the net or pass through the extended posts? You hit it in, but with what? You hit the sliotar with the hurley (below). It’s kind of like a racket shaped cricket paddle. The hurley can be used to hit the sliotar to a teammate, into the net, or through the posts.

It’s not quite that simple, though. There are things you can and cannot do to get the sliotar up the pitch and into your opponent’s goal.

You can:

· move freely about the pitch without the sliotar

· move freely if the sliotar is possessed on your hurley (balanced or bouncing)

· take 4 steps with sliotar in hand

· hit the sliotar out of the air with the hurley

· hit the sliotar out of the air with an open palm

· catch the sliotar with your hand

· pick the sliotar off the ground with your hurley

· kick the sliotar off the ground

You cannot:

· throw the sliotar to teammates

· pick the sliotar off the ground with your hand

· take more than four steps with the sliotar in hand

· transfer the sliotar from hand to hurley more than twice in one possession

Each team consists of 15 players - a goalkeeper, three full backs, three half backs, two midfielders, three half forwards and three full forwards.

That was as concise as I could be, here is a more detailed explanation with some visual examples (please excuse the pronunciation of "sliotar").

5. History

Organized modern hurling is old. It’s the Grey Cup being played at Rosedale Park old. It’s Babe Ruth being sold to finance a Broadway show (allegedly) old. It’s Thomas Edison inventing the lightbulb old… okay, it’s not quite that old.

The first All-Ireland Hurling Championship took place in 1887, before the first World Series, before the first Stanley Cup, and well before the first Super Bowl. These teams have been duking it out for 133 years and they aren’t stopping anytime soon.

6. Inter-county Play

Ireland is separated into four provinces which are further divided into separate counties. There are 12 counties that qualify to compete for the All-Ireland Hurling Championship each year.

Image based on a map from A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland via Andrew Koch

Most players are from the county their team represents, like an international sporting competition (Olympics, World Cup). Hometown heroes, local pride, county rivalries - hurling has it all.

There have been cases where players have transferred counties, but for the most part, the teams are made up of players from that county.

7. "The Big Three"

Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny are the traditional hurling powers. The three squads have combined to win 94 out of 133 total All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championships.

Cork (30) and Tipperary (28) are the OGs, winning 12 of the first 16 championships. In recent times, Kilkenny (36) has risen to the top, winning 11 out of the last 21, including four straight from 2006-2009.

If you watch or attend a hurling final, chances are one of these three teams is playing.

8. Degree of Difficulty

Hurling is not easy. Just walking with the sliotar on a hurley is hard enough, these players are running full speed with some opponent hacking at them. They are basically catching lighter baseballs with their bare hands. The accuracy of their shots is truly astounding, both on the run and stationary, some of their bombs travel over 300 feet in the air. Imagine trying to self-pitch hit a baseball through football uprights standing on your own 10-yard line. That’s what these players are doing, except usually they’re on the move.

The hurlers make it look like second nature, which can overshadow the difficulty of the game. The plays they make are absolutely ridiculous, worthy of filling up any SC highlight reel.

9. It’s not for the faint of heart

Let’s not sugar coat it, this game is pretty dangerous. Players wear no padding, save their mid 90s Dominik Hasek Cooper helmets (generous comparison). Check out some of those cages, those things could barely stop a paper bag. At least they are mandatory, helmets were optional until 2009… I was watching the ‘05 All-Ireland semis and both tenders weren’t wearing buckets. Tenders. They looked like Phil Esposito in the Summit Series, but it was the mid 2000s.

10. 2021 Championship Outlook

Defending champions Limerick currently sit as the odds-on favourite (+130) to defend their crown at the 2021 All-Ireland Championship. Following them are 2020 finalist Galway and traditional power Tipperary, sitting at +300 and +550 respectively (odds provided by William Hill).

Take a lil' peak at the provincial championship draws, there are some juicy matchups right off the bat.

In Munster, we have a semi-final showdown between Limerick and Cork. Defending champs and outright favourite to battle the 30-time All-Ireland winners who have recently fell on tougher times (one finals appearance since ’07). On the other side of the semi’s bracket, Tipperary awaits the winner of Clare and Waterford. This could be seen as a favourable draw for Tipp as they miss both Limerick and Cork in the semis. The Premier County is in a good position to return to the Munster championship game.

In Leinster, things are a little more straight forward. If Galway and Kilkenny aren’t in the final, I’d be shocked. Antrim and Laois are total long shots, while Wexford and Dublin aren't quite on the level of Galway and Kilkenny, and the odds reflect it.

The National Hurling League started back up in May, and through five games, Kilkenny and Galway are leading their respective divisions with a record of 4-0-1. Just something to note as we head into the provincial finals.

This July is going to be packed with sports from all over the world, but if you have a chance maybe check out a half or even a highlight pack. There are full games all over YouTube, and I'd highly recommend the 2014 All-Ireland final (drawn game) between Limerick and Kilkenny and the aforementioned 2005 All-Ireland semis featuring Kilkenny and Galway.

That's all from me, time to pour some Guinness and get ready for Dublin v Antrim.

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