I got a few belts over the years, and definitely the thumb, little finger and ring finger were all broken over the years - and the wrist as well.
I feel the cold weather in my ring finger, the circulation isn’t too good there obviously. And that’s not an excuse for not wearing the wedding ring, either.
In general they’re ok, but I notice that the changes in the game mean players maybe don’t get those types of injuries now, or not as much, at least.
When I was playing - usually in the half-back line - I’d put up my hand for the ball, and usually the half-forward would have been told to lay down a marker, to use nice terminology. A lot of them were looking to lay down a marker every time the ball dropped, put it that way, but that doesn’t happen any more, really.
That’s not to say the physicality is gone from the game, far from it. It’s more physical in many ways and less physical in others.
It’s less dirty, to put it bluntly: if you’re a half-back you’re less likely to get the hand blown off you because now the half-forward is trying to get the ball to ground and win it there, or flick it past the defender. What he’s not trying to do is to clear ball, hand, man and everything else out of the way by pulling.
You rarely enough see a hurley broken now, never mind someone’s hand. Hurley-carriers are almost redundant because hurleys are rarely broken now: when there was one broken in the Waterford-Limerick game recently I was nearly surprised by it.
Again, that’s not to say the hurling isn’t tough any more. It’s just evolved in the last few years. I watched the 1996 Munster club final recently on video, Ballygunner versus Wolfe Tones, and my memory of it was that it was a good game but there’s no comparison with the quality now.
To be fair, the game moves on and even the ball is very different now. Back in the 90s, Seanie McMahon of Clare was regarded as the master from 65s, and he was very accurate, probably a three out of four man.
But some of those 65s might have just dropped over the bar, even though he was a specialist - now the ball is rising as it goes over from a 65. The wind, too, is much less of a factor. Against the breeze in our day you’d be trying to keep the score down, but nowadays teams work it through the lines and once they’re within the 65 they’ll shoot.
At intercounty level midfield up is the scoring zone, even if the breeze is blowing against you.
With hurleys I was savage picky. I used Frank Murphy, a local hurley-maker, for years but I noticed a couple of lads with Waterford had O’Brien hurleys from Tipperary, and they were lovely.
But I wouldn’t change over mid-season. I waited til after the season and then got two O’Brien hurleys, took them home and worked on them, brought them to training . . . the Murphy hurleys were great hurleys too, I used them from the age of six, but I just switched.
Justin McCarthy was with us then and would take the hurley away and work with it. He was a genius with them, it would come back like a wand. He’d pick it up, ‘that’s not right, let me have that’, and it would come back with a sharper handle so you’d have a better grip, a couple more changes - and it was a much better hurley.
In my day it was all 36-inch hurleys, which I think was based on the logic that if you were tall you needed a long hurley to pull on the ground. Nowadays lads are using 32-inch hurleys, it’s all about stickwork, and that’s easier to control, obviously, compared to a 36-inch. I can even remember going to a 38-inch at one stage, thinking I’d get a longer strike with that.
As against that I finished up playing junior with a 34-inch hurley.
One skill that’s developed is the ability players have now in using the hurley to take down a ball in the air that’s travelling out of their reach, to kill it into their hand - often while they’re running themselves. That’s something you wouldn’t have seen in the past.
Then there’s the sideline cut. Every inter-county team seems to have someone who specialises in cutting the ball directly over the bar. It’s a fantastic skill and should be worth two points as a reward for doing it.
Thinking as a manager, though, the chances of it coming off are too slim. Apart from the very top guys the odds are maybe one in five, one in six, and you’re often better off building an attack from it.
If I had to borrow one player’s hands for one game?
Bubbles O’Dwyer’s skills, and the speed of those skills, are unbelievable. In one All-Ireland final, he got a ball up in hand and struck it over the bar in a split-second; anyone else would have taken the ball into contact because an opponent was closing in on him, but not Bubbles.
From my own time Ken McGrath had fabulous wrists, in fairness. A classy, classy hurler.