Regan key to Galway ascent
Published 25/03/2011 | 05:00
During the highlights of Galway's recent league hurling victory over Kilkenny, the camera detoured away from the action and focused a couple of times on Joe Canning's presence in the stand at Pearse Stadium that day.
The most striking feature of Canning in his civilian clothes was how lean he looked.
Clearly his time away from hurling because of a persistent heel injury has been put to good use.
The Galway management will be in no hurry to rush him back. It might not be stretching it to suggest that they could even be a little relieved that the injury has held him up.
With no Portumna and no third-level college to serve, he's just had the quietest winter of a career that has always existed in the fast lane and that has suited the Tribesmen just fine.
In his absence and the absence of Damien Hayes, Galway haven't exactly been as discommoded -- as the Kilkenny result might illustrate.
An air of stability has suddenly blown across Galway hurling, it seems. They have a sense of the journey they are taking, the game they want to play and the personnel they need to do it. It's been a while since that much could be said about the Tribesmen.
Stability is not something that Galway hurling has been able to identify with for far too long, but in key positions a definite shape has evolved that bodes extremely well for the future.
Nowhere is that stability reflected best than in defence where Tony Og Regan, an inter-county outcast up to the beginning of last year, has nailed down the centre-back berth and Shane Kavanagh, last year's captain, is sure to supplant all challengers for full-back when he returns from injury over the next few weeks.
Getting consistency of selection in these positions is the key to getting the consistency of performance according to Pete Finnerty, the team's former stellar half-back.
For Finnerty and just about everyone else who observes Galway hurling at close range, the No 3 and No 6 shirts have been positions of mistrust and areas where poor selections by successive Galway managers have been made over the years.
In his two years as manager, Ger Loughnane started five different full-backs in seven championship matches. John Lee was a constant figure at centre-back in those games, but Diarmuid Cloonan, Regan, Ger Mahon, Fergal Moore and Kavanagh all dovetailed behind him.
When John McIntyre took over for the 2009 league, four different full-backs were tried and tested in the seven games -- Damien McLearn, Eugene McEntee, Ciaran O'Donovan and Kavanagh.
Outside them Martin Ryan, Eoin Lynch, Mahon and Kavanagh all had spells at centre-back.
But for last year's league campaign the pivotal defensive positions were set in stone, Kavanagh and Regan the axis in all the games that mattered (they were qualified when McEntee and Conor Dervan played in the positions against Cork).
For the five championship games last summer, Kavanagh and Regan solidified their status as the No 1 choices and even though Lee has filled in at No 3 in three of the four league matches to date, no one doubts that when Kavanagh returns his selection will be automatic once fitness and form is proved.
Not even Kilkenny and Tipperary can be as certain of who will take those positions this season.
Finnerty has feels the uncertainty over these positions has been a major drawback over the years.
"You could argue that we never replaced Conor Hayes at full-back. Everyone got a go there over the last 20 years in Galway," he said.
"I even played there myself. We never had any stability there. And centre-back wasn't much better. The whole thing went 'baloobas' for a while.
"But now there is a feeling that these two players can continue to bring that consistency required.
"Galway hurling hasn't been fair to Regan over the years, especially in recognition of the centre-back that he is. If Tony Og was from Sarsfields, or Portuma or Loughrea and not Rahoon-Newcastle, an intermediate club, I'd say his status as the No 1 centre-back would long be cemented.
"That's not being disrespectful, that's just the way I see it. The reality is he has gone from being nowhere to an All Star nomination in one season and to me that's a confidence issue.
"There has been too much chopping and changing in Galway hurling over the years.
"If you look at the example of the Irish rugby team and how Jonathan Sexton's confidence has suffered, you have to give players a chance, allow them to build some self belief in themselves.
"I was speaking to one of the selectors recently and he admitted that when they came in first the confidence was really low. There was little eye contact around the room. They were hanging their heads going around the place almost in semi shame. But it's come on a lot over the last two seasons. The improvement in confidence has been massive."
Around Kavanagh and Regan the other nuts and bolts of this Galway side are being tied down. Ollie Canning turned down an invitation to return, but Damien Joyce's appointment as captain is helping to lift his performances, according to Finnerty.
Adrian Cullinane's return from a lengthy injury, following on from David Collins' reappearance last year, brings further options. Cullinane has scored in three of his four league starts so far.
Up front Iarla Tannian has showed signs of resurgence in an attack that has coped adequately without their marquee duo.
Finnerty admitted he has seen too many false dawns to be expectant of the big breakthrough, but likes the way the team is taking challenges in their stride, a top-of-the-table league clash with high-flying Dublin on Sunday their latest stern examination.
"They're talking more about the hurlers than the footballers around Tuam, so that says something," he added.