The day the boy warrior
Canning’s star sang

REMEMBER your Yeats.

It wasn’t a great hurling year by any means. It won’t linger the way 2007 does.

Kilkenny were deserved All-Ireland champions, but their obliteration of Waterford in the final had a sheen of efficiency and ruthlessness that you could admire but hardly love.

It didn’t have, for instance, the
poetry of a boy warrior in Thurles, performing heroics as the summer sun began to set.

The great WB slips a passing reference to “golden-thighed Pythagoras” into Among School Children, a
glittering phrase that stays bright for you long after the fog of your
schooldays disperses. It suggests power, skill and riches in one quick image, and if the by-heart stanzas of 20 years ago weren’t what we had in mind on that late July evening in Thurles,
immortal comparison soon was.

It was the game in which Joe
Canning announced his arrival, and golden didn’t seem treasured enough a comparison for him.

Beforehand there were questions. Canning impressed in Galway’s run to the league final. Having blithely cut sidelines over the bar in Croke Park as a minor, he proved against Cork in a league clash in Limerick that pitch
dimensions are the same for minor and senior.

The flight path of one sideline cut, taken from the shadow of the covered stand in the second half, was extraordinary: it wandered off-course initially before settling on a pitiless trajectory directly over the Cork crossbar.

It also reconfigured the rules,
signalling to every other county that a sideline in their own half against
Galway was a likely score conceded.

There had been a goal against
Tipperary in the league final — with his hurley fully extended, Canning beat Brendan Cummins while relying totally on his wrists. Lucky enough, Canning said afterwards. Luck is right.

But Galway manager Ger Loughnane had advised the Portumna teenager to mimic his clubmate Damien Hayes’ industry, and pace has always been present on the Canning charge sheet. Some suggested the trench warfare of Fitzgibbon Cup campaigns doesn’t compare to the
cavalry charges of high summer, and by the time July rolled around Galway had played Laois and Antrim before taking the field against Cork.

In Thurles. Where else can these kinds of questions be asked? Where else can they be answered?

Canning wrote the first chapter of his senior intercounty career in
lightning that night with a tally of 2-12.

His first goal was a triumph of strength, holding off an uncharitable Diarmuid O’Sullivan as he bore down on goal, and of deftness, improvising an emphatic forehand smash to the net.

Just before the break Canning helped to free Alan Kerins near the Cork goal, and when Donal Óg Cusack floored Kerins, the keeper was off for a second yellow card.

Canning took the resultant penalty. Ring always said he aimed at the funkiest player on the line, but
Canning picked the coldest: substitute keeper Martin Coleman was just on the field and the Galwayman stitched the ball past him. Galway, or Joe
Canning, 2-5, Cork 0-9.

After half-time Canning added three of the first points of the second half and Galway were four up.

The pace question didn’t arise. The Galwayman worked at his own speed, creating a force field any time the ball came near him to operate on his own clock: Canning time. He gathered the ball and tilted to lean away from his marker, flexing those golden wrists to put the ball exactly where he wanted.

Even the fact that it was a summer evening added to the occasion. Rather than the harsh spotlight of an afternoon throw-in, there was a memorable tint to proceedings, players bright on one side, facing the sun, and long shadows stretching away on the other.

It wasn’t just about Canning that evening, after all. One observer thought the Cork display was one of the greatest displays he’d ever seen,
isolating a second-half incident when ball came down into Cork’s right corner — right out of the sun — and fell between Cork’s Shane O’Neill and Galway’s Ger Farragher.

Farragher lost the ball in the sun but O’Neill didn’t.

“He caught it and he was snorting like a bull as he was driving forward,” said the observer, one Ger Loughnane.

Ben O’Connor and Joe Deane drove Cork to an improbable lead, but as the effort told, Canning joined brawn to accuracy. He hit three points into the Town End as time ticked away, but Cork survived. Deane won a late, late free out on the left wing and the game was up.

After the final whistle that evening in Thurles, delirious Cork supporters
invaded the field. They had massed on the sidelines and surged on to celebrate victory rather than, as it looked at half-time, line up for a wake. The players in red struggled into the dressing-room area one at a time, and each shook a fist at the crowds hanging over the entrance to the Semple Stadium tunnel, each of them lauded in turn.

For much of that time Canning was out on the field, signing autographs, not all of them for kids in maroon. Then he came back to the stadium tunnel, and he passed us, sweat still rolling down his face. An enterprising photographer took a picture of him trudging to the Galway dressing-room.

The shoulders are slumped and the head is down, while Thor’s hammer drags along the ground. The great melody is still.

But while he was on the field … it was what a star sang, Yeats might have said. What a careless muse heard.


Twenty questions (and one for luck)

1. What gives between the Olympic Council of Ireland and the Irish Sports Council? Remember that this summer?

2. If Darren Sutherland is the Dazzler, is Kenny Egan the Kezzler? Would Paddy Barnes be the Paddler? Would Roy Keane be the Rozzler? (Stop that now — Ed)

3. Having spent an hour in the man’s company during the week,
is Pádraig Harrington the nicest human being in Irish sport?

4. Then again, does he have much serious competition?

5. Now that Roy Keane has shaved off his beard, can we expect the hairy cornflakes of the Tyrone football team to do the same? And is that a good or a bad thing?

6. If Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world, then why can’t he tie his laces? Or put another way, is he the fastest man in the world because he doesn’t tie his laces?

7. Has anybody now or ever given a good reason for the continuing ties with the AFL or the International Rules apart from a) those involved getting a nice freebie to Australia or b) taking free-kicks from the hand instead of off the ground?

8. The Gaelic Players Association
is offering associate membership — is it worth joining up?

9. Has Jamie Carragher done the unthinkable and created something even rarer than writing the Great American Novel and written the
Actually Interesting In Certain Parts, Amazingly Enough, For A Footballer’s Autobiography?

10. Is the Munster version of the Haka the Muka or the Maka?

More seriously, if there are New Zealanders playing for Munster, why don’t they do that dance before every game?

11. If someone else in the pub says “I’ll tell you something, there’s going to be big changes in sport because of the recession, mark my words,” are you going to stop rolling your eyes and leave immediately (by way of the off-licence)?

12. Eduardo’s leg against Birmingham: you winced, didn’t you? But then you had to have another look, didn’t you?

13. You don’t really know what to make of Declan Kidney yet either, do you?

14. If, as some people are predicting, the Cork hurling team is beaten into the second division of the NHL next year… and if the team suffers accordingly in the championship itself… are we likely to see them demoted to the Christy Ring Cup, with attendant irony?

15. Admit it — deep down you secretly admire the jerseys of Stade Francais, complete with those freaky-looking queen faces (the 13th-century heroine Blanche de Castille, the wife of Louis VIII and heroine of all of Paris, fact fans): you’d love to have the guts to wear one, wouldn’t you. Or, to be strictly accurate, you wish you didn’t have the gut to wear one?

16. Michael Phelps. The food. Remember? (
watch?v>WouDOVWjfdo if you don’t).

He eats 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day; why is it that he looks like a Michelangelo statue on that diet and your columnist looks like Orson Welles? (And don’t say the training)

17. Exactly how big is Lewis Hamilton? He’s young, rich, talented, cool, famous: can I at least console myself with being taller than him?

18. What is it with Ger Loughnane and priests? Was he a Cromwellian soldier in some past life? Or — slightly more plausible — Martin Luther (“I’ve got 95 Theses, but I’ll only
tell you what they are just before the throw-in”)?

19. Does anyone else think that the build-up to the Lions tour in South Africa next year seems to have been going on since the mid-seventies?

20. Finally, having written a sports book this year, why was this column not forewarned about the irrational hatred suddenly felt towards anybody else who has a book out at this time of the year?

The antipathy towards colleagues who are in direct competition on the sporting front we could have guessed at, but the psychotic bubbling of rage towards the likes of Julie Walters and Dawn French — even if we’re not all appealing to the same constituency — came as a surprise.

Is that normal?

21. Or is it just me?


Ball in hand, world of trouble

LAST year this column had an interesting chat with Ger Loughnane up in Shannon. Over the toasted special and hot coffee the Galway boss made an interesting observation about primary possession in modern hurling.

“One feature has been the ability of hurlers to win ball out of the air,” said Loughnane in July 2007.

“It’s a skill that’s out of this world. It was never perfected as well as it is now — you have lads flaking on the ball and a small man like Tommy Walsh can reach up and come away with it. It’s phenomenal.”

Far be it from us to contradict Ger, but one impression from last Sunday’s All-Ireland final is that fielding the ball cleanly — particularly among forwards — isn’t the boon it once was.

There’s been a lot of non-specific discussion of what makes Kilkenny so good, ranging from generalised guff about the fact that there’s no other serious challenge to hurling as the top sport in the county to sundry other semi-libellous propositions we need not go into here.

But something Kilkenny do very well is tackling in groups. It’s noticeable that when an opposition player contests his own puck-out, for instance, that Kilkenny players descend on that player from nearby sectors: if a ball is landing on an opposing wing-forward, then, he can expect a Kilkenny corner-back, centre-back, centre-fielder and possibly a wing-forward to join the wing-back marking him.

In that context catching the ball is almost counterproductive. The traditional top outcome for a puck-out is that the target player fields the ball cleanly, turns and then dictates the play up front.

By tackling that puck-out target in numbers, however, Kilkenny make a weakness out of a traditional strength: if the opponent catches the ball cleanly he’s surrounded by at least three opponents and isn’t going anywhere, either coughing up the ball or overcarrying it. If he doesn’t catch the ball cleanly then nine times out of 10 the ball is going to go to one of the rapidly-converging Kilkenny defenders coming to augment the wing-back.

Waterford probably suffered more than most teams last Sunday from that Kilkenny development. In the likes of Seamus Prendergast, Dan Shanahan and Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh they have accomplished catchers of the ball, but outnumbered by Cats time and again, they couldn’t win the ball to establish a bridgehead. To top it off, Tommy Walsh — as described above — and JJ Delaney are superb fielders in their own right. In a 50-50 battle you’d back both of them to win more than their share of ball anyway, and thus it proved in Sunday’s game.

Up front Kilkenny stock their own half-forward line with excellent aerial competitors Martin Comerford and Eoin Larkin are well able to contest the dropping ball, but Henry Shefflin is in a class of his own underneath his own puck-out, with two particularly impressive trademark moves.

Sometimes Shefflin — who stands well over six feet tall — doesn’t engage with his marker in the pushing and shoving underneath a Kilkenny puck-out, waiting until the last possible second to launch himself across the defender to win the ball, his momentum then carrying him into the centre and goalwards.

When the Kilkenny man is caught up in grappling with an opponent, he has a devastating ability to deflect the ball onwards past his man — not with a wild pull but by angling his hurley to bounce the sliotar into space behind him. His size and strength is an asset in this case, as he’s able to keep his hurley steady while holding off his opponent.

Other teams will come up with strategies to combat these developments, but at the moment nobody executes them as well as Kilkenny, so those other counties are suffering.

It would be a source of grim satisfaction to a lot of older hurlers to see the (dis)advantage now gained by catching the ball cleanly counteracted by the grand old art of overhead pulling, which would seem to be one of the few options to get around the group tackling as well.

What money on Brian Cody and his backroom to come up with a way to stay ahead of the posse, however?




It’s 1998… with a few changes

TOMORROW night in Thurles Gerald McCarthy and Ger Loughnane stalk the sidelines once again, while Joe Dooley and Davy Fitzgerald will also cross swords. It’s like 1998 all over again, though without the three priests, late-night Munster Council meetings, pitch occupations by disgruntled fans, and games being whistled up two minutes early.

Well, there’s been none of that so far. It’s only July, remember.

Given the way the chips have fallen for this weekend’s games, that recent RTE documentary, Who Fears To Speak Of ‘98, couldn’t have been more timely. The documentary, which focussed on that never-to-be-
forgotten summer, brought back to vivid life the two Munster hurling
finals of that season, not to mention the disciplinary shenanigans afterwards and the Offaly-Clare marathon.

Back then Ger Loughnane had led a team from the wilderness; nowadays he’s trying to do the same with Galway. The similarities don’t quite align perfectly, however. The Clare model of ‘98 was a battle-hardened group whose fearsome defence backboned their two All-Ireland victories.

This Galway team is a reverse image of that Clare side: spearheaded by Joe Canning but with doubts hanging over the rearguard. That’s not the only difference, of course. Ger Loughnane famously addressed the Banner nation in the middle of the season 10 years ago, but silence has radiated from across the Shannon for most of the year. Who fears to speak in ‘08?

His adversary 10 years ago on the sideline was Gerald McCarthy, then with Waterford. The Déise didn’t quite make it out of the wilderness under McCarthy’s watch, though most observers would credit the foundations he laid as forming the basis for his namesake Justin’s success in collecting three Munster championships and a National league title. Gerald, not Justin, was the manager who introduced the likes of Ken McGrath and John Mullane to senior intercounty hurling, though they fully blossomed under his successor.

Like Ger Loughnane, Gerald McCarthy’s present post is also a neat opposite to the challenges he faced with his former side. Where Waterford were a young team with potential, looking to gain experience of the big occasion, Cork have all the experience you could want, and then some. Several players have three All-Ireland medals, and many have played in four consecutive All-Ireland finals.

The gloom on Leeside at present is presumably based on the fact that none of those players are getting younger, not to mention a laboured victory over Dublin.

In 1998 Gerald McCarthy had a young team who knew there was always tomorrow; for some of his current charges tomorrow may be very close indeed.

The other two managers taking to the sidelines tomorrow night, Joe Dooley of Offaly and Davy Fitzgerald of Waterford, figured prominently in 1998 as well, of course. Dooley
already has a significant scalp this
season, in Limerick, but he too is in
a far different camp compared to a decade ago.

Back then Offaly were a seasoned bunch, dripping with All-Ireland
minor and senior medals, not to
mention a loudly trumpeted reputation as the biggest travelling party in the GAA.

A few weeks ago this reporter saw Dooley emerge from the dressing-rooms in Portlaoise after a trimming by Kilkenny, and the players who came out behind him were as fresh-faced as you’d expect from a senior squad with 12 U-21 players on it.


Dooley has also had to learn how to reverse his thinking, putting aside the
environment he operated in 10 years ago, and dealing with a new reality.

As for the Waterford manager… well, anyone who would have suggested in 1998 that Davy Fitzgerald would become boss of the Déise would have been treated to his or her comrades gathering up their drinks and edging away slowly.

Because the appointment’s been overtaken by other events, it doesn’t make it any less unusual, and if anyone’s had to reverse their thinking, it’s Davy.

Who feared to predict in ‘98?