Friday 24 March 2017

The King v the Prince

SOMETIME between 2.30 and 4.0 tomorrow afternoon at Munster venues 75 miles apart, two managers from Leinster and Connacht counties will miss absent friends.

At some stage during the Galway-Tipperary clash, John McIntyre will stare across Semple Stadium and wonder what Joe Canning would have done in a particular situation.

He will know that irrespective of how well the attack may be going, it would be even more potent if Canning was prowling in Paddy Stapleton-Padraic Maher-Brendan Maher territory. And if things are going badly, Canning could be the man to correct them.

Meanwhile, down in Pairc Ui Chaoimh, there will come a time when Brian Cody would love to have Henry Shefflin busily setting questions for the Cork defence. Kilkenny's talent rivers may be running high, but the reality is that nobody comes close to Shefflin when a dam needs to be burst.

destruction

Tipperary discovered his capacity for destruction in the most painful circumstances imaginable in last year's All-Ireland final. On a day when Shefflin wasn't performing to the dizzily high standards he has set for himself, he still walloped a crucial penalty to the net. It changed the game and, quite probably, the course of hurling history.

"There isn't a guy on earth you'd want more than Henry Shefflin in that situation," said Cody afterwards.

Portumna people wouldn't agree. They believe that if similar circumstances arose, Joe Canning would be just calm and reliable, even if he is nearly 10 years younger than Shefflin.

Kilkenny and Galway will miss their two hit-men tomorrow, but their absence is good news for the rest of the hurling community, which has only a further three days to wait for something special in Croke Park.

The clash between Ballyhale Shamrocks and Portumna in the AIB All-Ireland club hurling final would have been intriguing in any circumstances as the former attempt to take over at the top of the honours list with five titles and the latter bid to become the first club in hurling or football to win the title for a third successive year.

A fascinating duel in its own right, but when decorated by gold dust produced by Shefflin and Canning, it provides a dazzling backdrop to the St Patrick's Day spectacular. Not that you would notice by the level of promotional work from the GAA.

Yes, they are offering a very good deal on All-Ireland final tickets for those who book before midnight on Tuesday (€15 for adults, €5 for children) but this was a glorious opportunity to hype the overall occasion (St Gall's and Kilmurry-Ibrickane are each chasing a first All-Ireland football success) and attempt to set a new attendance record.

It's a super double-header where Shefflin v Canning could have been used at the heart of an advertising drive.

This pair are serious box-office and when they're opposing each other with an All-Ireland title at stake it's the sort of opportunity the GAA should have ruthlessly exploited, especially at a time when they're competing for attention with Six Nations rugby, Cheltenham and Champions League soccer.

Shefflin and Canning won't have many (if indeed any) direct head-to-head clashes on Wednesday, but their very large imprints will still be all over the game. Indeed, the outcome could be well decided by whichever of them can exert more influence.

It's an extraordinary testament to Canning's impact on hurling that, at the age of 21 he's being compared to Shefflin, who was the game's dominant figure through the last decade. He starts the new decade in the same position.

The Irish Independent's '125 series' last autumn rated him as the best hurler in GAA history, a bold assertion in a land of giants where, up to then, Christy Ring had been generally regarded as the biggest of all. In such an inexact science as comparing players from different generations, opinion is everything as was proven by the massive public reaction the '125 series' generated.

One of the more interesting aspects of the response was the degree to which Shefflin was accepted as No 1. Ten years earlier, it would have been regarded as sacrilege to query Ring's status as the top man. Not any more, because of Shefflin's surge up the rankings during Kilkenny's greatest ever decade.

If Shefflin is regarded as the king, Canning is seen very much as the heir to the throne. Indeed, he has made more of an impact by now than Shefflin had at the same time in his career except, of course, in the crucial business of winning All-Ireland senior titles.

Canning's stature as a superstar has already been well established but with adulation come totally unrealistic expectations.

He is now judged by such high standards that unless he scores as much as all his colleagues put together, it's assumed that he wasn't quite up to his best.

ridiculous

"It's ridiculous," says Cyril Farrell. "You'll hear people saying 'Canning was quiet today' and then you look at the scoring and he's thrown in 1-11 or the likes. Much of it might have come from frees or line balls, so people will say 'but what did he get from play?' Of course, they're missing the point as he will have earned many of the frees himself. Chances are that he will have set up a lot of scores too.

"He has a special vision which very few sportspeople are blessed with. If he had taken up rugby, he would have made one hell of an out-half. He might even be playing for Ireland in Croke Park this Saturday.

"It's easy forget that this guy is only 21. He's under immense pressure all the time and comes in for 'special attention' from opponents, yet is expected to be man-of-the-match every day. It's some load to carry."

Shefflin is well used to humping heavy weight too. Taking responsibility comes easy to him and since he exudes such a clear sense of authority, he's very much the on-pitch leader.

Cody has always said that he doesn't dictate every switch among the Kilkenny forwards. Instead, they are allowed to make up their own minds.

"Obviously, if I spot the need for a switch during a game, I'll act on it. Similarly, if the lads believe there's something to be gained by altering positions, I won't interfere. They're on the pitch and playing the game as they see it. They're taking responsibility, which is vital," he said.

Shefflin is very much at the heart of the on-field decision-making process. If he calls a move, there's a reason and everybody else reacts. It's leadership at its most refined.

Shefflin's strike-rate has been so consistently high over many years that people tend to equate his best days with massive scoring returns, yet Cody believes that possibly his best performance came on a day he scored nothing from open play.

It was against Galway in the 2007 All-Ireland quarter-final, a game that was in the balance until just after the hour mark when Kilkenny pulled away.

"When we were under most pressure, Shefflin responded in an unbelievable way.

"He fought for every ball like a dog, drove Galway lads in all directions and led the forward line like a real general," said Cody.

"His sense of team and his selflessness were immense. He wasn't waiting for others to win ball -- he ploughed in, took the belts and got on with it. Imagine a young fella looking on, admiring how someone he regards as an absolute legend got stuck in."

Canning isn't shy on work either. A good example of his willingness to dig in when the occasion demanded was in last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Ballyhale.

Having scored 2-5 from a typical mix of open play, frees, '65s' and sidelines on a day when Portumna hit Ballyhale for five goals, Canning drifted back into defence late on as the Galway champions defended their lead.

Shefflin, who scored 0-10, did his best to mastermind a recovery, but Ballyhale still came up seven points short.

Since then, Canning has won an All-Ireland club title, Shefflin an All-Ireland county title.

Now, it's back to Croke Park on Wednesday to see who can pick up the first major honours of 2010.

It's enough to whet appetites way beyond Portumna and Galway, Ballyhale and Kilkenny as the King and the Prince shoot it out for supremacy and the first grab for power of the new decade.

Irish Independent

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