Former Limerick hurler and manager TJ Ryan reveals what he looks for as a rule of thumb when assessing the very best hurlers
Early on in my career, I broke a thumb. Or rather, one of my own teammates broke it for me. It was a club game, I was trying to catch a ball, he pulled... sometimes you’re not sure, you get a rap across the hand and it’s sore, or a bit swollen, but you’re thinking, ‘is it broken?’
I knew this was well and truly broken just by looking at it. No x-ray was needed.
I had to go to Croom to get it sorted out because it broke badly — it wasn’t wired, it just had to be reset — but in fairness I didn’t have too many injuries in my career.
I probably wasn’t going fast enough to injure the legs, and I was lucky with my hands.
And I’ve seen some fairly bad broken fingers over the years — I’d say Frankie Carroll’s fingers and thumbs would be going in different directions, Mike Houlihan, Gary (Kirby) broke his thumb in the All-Ireland final in 1996.
I was mindful of my hands when playing but a lot of the time I think those injuries come down to good luck as much as anything. I liked to contest the ball in the air, to stick the hand up to catch it, so that’s the reason I think I had that bit of luck on my side.
One obvious effect of a break in your catching hand is that for a while afterwards — when you’ve recovered — you’ll get that bit of a sting when catching the ball or getting a flake. You have to regain your confidence a little bit.
That would have happened to me when I broke my thumb that time, but I was lucky in that it happened towards the end of the playing season — back when there was a real off-season — so I had the operation and had a couple of months to get it recovered for the following year. I spent time squeezing a sponge ball, and all of that, to recover the strength.
The gym thing wasn’t as strong when I was playing so I didn’t do specific exercises to build them up or anything. I suppose when you take a step back and think about it, though, the focus for a hurler really is all about his hands.
You see someone like Cian Lynch or Patrick Horgan, what they can do with one flick — they are their hands, really.
I think what really brings it home to you — how good a guy’s hands are — is if you see him striking off both sides and the weak side is every bit as strong and graceful as the strong side.
For someone like me, my weak sidea weak side in that it took an awful lot of work, it just wasn’t as natural as my strong side.
That’s the real test for me, if you’re looking at a top player and wondering which is the strong side. Now if you focus on it you may see the strike off the weaker side is not quite as crisp, but it’s hard to spot even that with the very best of them.
With so many ball walls in clubs all over the country now, the ball is coming back at you over and over again, so it’s bound to improve you if you’re putting in the work.
Look at Noel and John McGrath, the way their striking just... flows, Aaron Gillane is very tasty but might be a little bit more manufactured, a bit more of the arm than the wrists at times, but if you ask about the current Limerick side I think Declan Hannon just has it.
In our time Mark Foley had a beautiful, beautiful stroke. Davy Clarke was a beautiful striker. Ciarán (Carey) mightn’t have had as graceful a stroke but his feet were incredible and could get him out of trouble all day long. Mike Galligan was very good too.
If I had to pick someone’s hands to borrow for one game now, it’d be Deccie’s (Hannon). It probably tells you something about how the game has changed as well in that as a centre-back his job is now to ping the passes, long and short — 20 metres to one of the half-forwards, 50 metres to put it into space for the corner-forward, chip in with the odd score as well from long range... his hands are so good, it’s just effortless for him.
You just know with him, and some of these top guys, that when they make contact they hardly feel the hurley hit the sliotar. It is just like a top golfer when he tees off. They know it’s a good one as soon as they strike it.