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Inside the creation of the GAA's first bamboo hurley

‘We feel that we’re probably making some of the best hurleys that have ever been created.’

ASH HURLEYS HAVE been around as long as the ancient game itself but hurling stars of the future might be using bamboo sticks if this latest innovation proves successful.

Torpey-Hurleys-20200119-055-(1) John Conlan shoot with a Bambú hurley.

Ash has traditionally been the timber used to make hurleys for generations but it is under threat. A 2016 review published in the Journal of Ecology predicted that almost all ash trees in Europe will eventually be wiped out due to the ash-dieback disease spreading across the continent.

The wood is decreasing in supply in Ireland, with around three-quarters of ash now imported from Poland and Croatia, forcing hurley makers to think outside the box.

Several synthetic and fibreglass hurleys have been trialled in recent years, but now a Clare-based company believe they have found a viable alternative to ash – bamboo.

For over three decades now, Sixmilebridge firm Torpey Hurleys have been supplying leading sports shops, independent stores, clubs and individual players from with ash hurleys. When US President Barack Obama visited Ireland in 2011, Taoiseach Enda Kenny presented him with a Torpey hurley.

Yesterday they unveiled their novel sticks, known as Bambú, which are made from the natural and sustainable bamboo material. 

Over six years after they initially started toying around with the idea of using bamboo, the product has hit the market following a lengthy process of research, development and testing.

The aim was to create a hurley with the weight, feel and quality of an ash stick, but one that is sustainable, more robust and far less likely to break. 

Inter-county players such as Clare’s Seadna Morey and Westmeath’s Aonghus Clarke used the bamboo hurley during this year’s Allianz Hurling League and several more big names could be availing of them by the time the championship rolls around.

kyle-hayes-challenged-by-aonghus-clarke Aonghus Clarke of Westmeath using the bamboo hurley against Limerick in the 2020 Allianz Hurling League. Source: Keith Wiseman/INPHO

“I introduced it to Seadna one weekend and he was using it as his favourite hurley the following weekend,” Sean Torpey, who runs the company, tells The42.

“So that was brilliant. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought he’d take it up that quickly. Hurling is a traditional sport at the end of the day.”

The lockdown provided former All-Stars Tony Kelly and John Conlan with the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the Bambú sticks.

David Fitzgerald said “it’s his favourite hurley to use at the moment” and after his initial scepticism, fellow Clare man David Reidy “really fell in love with it” over the past few weeks according to Torpey.

“The fact they’re even bringing it to games means that they’re considering using it and that’s the main point for me,” he continues.

“If a player breaks their hurley during a game, they don’t know what the hurley carrier is going to bring into them. They have to play with it. 

“It’s always going to be a little bit of a slow process and change isn’t something that happens rapidly either. But everything that has led to this point has felt natural. If players weren’t happy with it we’d be looking at what else we need to do.

“We feel like we’re in a position to make a difference. We’re not saying this hurley is going to last players forever in terms of the strength but for instance, a big issue in the last 10 or 15 years is the impact of the sliotar on the hurley.

“We surveyed 1200 players last year and 81% of them said that their hurley broke along the grain through the bas. The way we have our matrix formation of technology used within the bamboo hurley, we’ve never seen a hurley break along the bas hitting the ball.

“That will be a big saving point for a lot of players because nobody likes breaking their favourite hurley, especially if you’re just hitting the ball before training or taking a free during a game. Goalkeepers are breaking quite a lot of hurleys hitting puck-outs as well.

“We really feel we’re saving people a bit of money along the way as well even though the hurley would seem a bit expensive to people in terms of the starting price point of it. 

“It’s only by trialling people are going to get used to it and see the value in it, that’s the way we’ve always seen our hurleys. 

“We’ve always tried to be innovative and forward-thinking even though we’re a small business in east Clare. We try to think outside the box and see a bigger picture.”

Torpey Hurleys was established by Sean’s father John, who he describes as “the master craftsman”, back in 1981. As it became apparent in the last decade that a different solution to ash would be required down the line, John suggested taking a look at bamboo as an alternative.

tony-kellys-hurley-before-the-game A view of Clare's Tony Kelly's hurley before the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final replay. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Sean’s studies took him to Loughborough University in England’s East Midlands where he studied sports technology, specialising in the engineering of sports-related products.

After completing his degree, he worked as a development engineer in Adidas’s innovation team at their headquarters in the German town of Herzogenaurach in Bavaria.

He eventually moved home to take over the family business from his father. Sean sought to utilise his experience to introduce more “modern ideas and ways of doing things” in Torpey Hurleys.

“I value the importance of facts and understanding material science. There was an opportunity for us to look at hurling and do something slightly different that isn’t harmful to the environment. That’s one big part of our values as a business,” he says.

“We made a few hurleys initially and had a few pucks. Now there was a bit of work to be done, don’t get me wrong, but we realised this was actually something that we could develop and bring forward.

“It’s very hard to explain the feel and touch of an ash hurley because you’ve been using it since you were a kid. But when you get that feeling you’ll know straight away. It’s nearly next to impossible to notice the difference between the touch and feel of this hurley and a normal ash hurley.

“Then you have the added durability benefits of the bamboo hurley. With ash, every tree is different, it’s a naturally grown raw material. You’re going to have differences within that in terms of structure, defects – all of these things.

“Whereas with the bamboo material, if a player comes to me three days before an All-Ireland semi-final and he has broken his favourite hurley, I can get him something exactly the same pretty much straight away. That’s a real performance benefit.”

Key stages of the design took place in Sean’s old university who were “major contributors” to the project.

They teamed up with Loughborough’s prestigious Sports Technology Institute – a research group with undergraduate and postgraduate programmes – that acted as the scientific and material testing site for the Bambú hurleys. 

Screenshot 2020-07-07 at 10.46.48 p.m. A Torpey Bambú hurley.

“We wouldn’t have felt the level of experience in sports technology was available in Ireland at the time and over the last few years,” he explains.

“It’s getting better but the likes of Loughborough Sports Technology Institute would deal with Adidas, Nike and these big brands within sport where margins are fine.”

When they were happy with the design, the hurleys went out for testing. The initial signs were positive.

“We put 12 our for testing in 2018. From 179 games and training sessions, only one hurley broke.”

A couple of years later, after more tweaking and perfecting, it’s finally ready for release.

“We have a patented construction around the material and we do a lot of in-house work here ourselves to make sure the process is correct. We’ve invested quite heavily in more modern manufacturing technology to be able to be as accurate as we can with this hurley.

“So we feel that we’re probably making some of the best hurleys that have ever been created. 

“At the moment we have players using it and it’s brilliant but we really want to see the reaction of the whole GAA community and see what they think. 

“What has really been impressive from our point of view is we’ve introduced this hurley to inter-county players in the last six to eight months, they’ve taken it on board and brought it to matches and used it in important National League games. 

“For us, that’s a real endorsement of how the hurley feels because players are so particular (about their hurleys) and the margins are so fine. If you can get a performance value anywhere you’re going to look at it and that’s where we feel the bamboo hurley is a real game-changer.

“It’s important the tailoring element of the hurley hasn’t been taken away. Hurleys are very personal to every player. Tony Kelly likes a different hurley to John Conlan who likes a different hurley to Peter Duggan. 

“With this one we can be very specific to every player and give them exactly what they want all of the time as close as possible anyway.” 

Torpey Bambú can be ordered on their website here 

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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