The Men in the Iron Masks

April 14, 2008

The men in the iron masks

IS THERE room in hurling for two princes? Alexandre Dumas would probably have disagreed, consigning either Joe Canning of Galway or Cork’s Paudie O’Sullivan to life in an iron mask, but yesterday the Gaelic Grounds proved big enough for both of them.

Canning’s incredible underage and club career — five All-Ireland medals at the age of 19 — mean his was the most keenly-awaited senior debut in living memory. He didn’t disappoint, either. The big Portumna lad scored four points but he had a hand in both Galway goals and could claim at least two assists no matter how you judge your player stats.

The coming of Paudie O’Sullivan hasn’t been as heralded, but his early departure from the Cork panel last season with a cruciate ligament injury was described by a selector, aptly enough, as crucifying — for his own sake and for Cork’s chances in 2007.

Canning began on Shane O’Neill and O’Sullivan on Conor Dervan, the Cork man playing as an orthodox corner-forward while Canning seemed to have licence to roam. Neither exploded into the game: O’Sullivan won a ball and burrowed through for a point on six minutes, at which stage Canning had yet to enjoy clean possession.

O’Sullivan involved Ben O’Connor later for a free which the Newtownshandrum man pointed, but Canning answered with a similar flick to Niall Healy for a point and then he came into his kingdom.

He pointed himself, set up Ger Farragher for a point, and on 25 minutes he won the ball near goal and had the vision to pick out Iarla Tannian lurking behind the Cork defence: goal. Early on the sizeable Galway contingent had been urging the new man on almost in an undertone, but his fine assist persuaded them to cheer con brio.

Five minutes after that Canning won a clever free 21m from goal; when it was moved into the centre he and Farragher had a discussion as to who’d take it. Farragher did, and goaled.

Canning’s first half report card read as follows, therefore: involvement in two goals, assists for two points, and two points scored himself.

A gusting wind aided Cork after the break, and O’Sullivan benefited, scoring two more points and winning a couple of frees, including one of the 20m efforts which Cork tried to goal from. He was at full-forward then, with Canning at centre-forward, and those may be their championship berths.

Canning wasn’t as busy as in the first half, but he managed a fine point and gave the killer pass for Galway’s insurance point. In general terms it’s worth pointing out that Galway were the better team for longer periods yesterday, which helped the Portumna club man.

Cork will be happy with the return they got from O’Sullivan. Four points from play and a nose for the direct path to goal will leave manager Gerald McCarthy happy enough. It may be a result of O’Sullivan’s underage apprenticeship as a rampaging half-back, but he was a good first line of defence for Cork, winning one of the 21m frees from which Cork tried for a goal.

Canning, however, looks to have bypassed any apprenticeship to announce himself as a full-formed menace to defensive society. His manager certainly thought so.

“Beforehand the game Joe was the same as if he was playing a challenge for Portumna,” said Ger Loughnane. “The first few balls didn’t go for him, next thing he lays it off for a goal.

“People look at what Joe scored, and they might say ‘he got 2-14 from frees, he was brilliant’ — but it’s what he does off the ball, bringing them into the play with his vision, those are characteristics that people underestimate.”

True enough. But if you want to talk scores… when Canning had an energetic tussle on the sideline with two Cork defenders in the second half – ‘exchanging pleasantries’ is the usual term — he needed attention for his right hand. There was a fine sense of occasion after he recovered and asked for the ball to take the sideline cut.

That he put the ball well over the bar from over 50m never seemed to be in doubt, and when the umpire dived for the flag it set off the roar of the day from the followers in maroon.

Alexandre Dumas never heard of hurling, but he’d surely have applauded young Canning’s flair for the dramatic gesture.

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