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Canning: it'll end up like tiddlywinks

FOUR days before battle and Joe Canning is wearing flip flops. He's chewing the fat with a table of scribes -- fending their questions with the ease you'd expect from a player who has become one of the GAA's hottest media properties since before he even graduated to senior inter-county hurling.

For the two-time All Star, this is the easy part of the week that's in it. The hard part will be Sunday, trying to do what no team has done since August 2005 when a very different Galway 15 toppled Brian Cody's crew in championship combat. Time to don the boots, helmet, and prepare for fireworks.

Then again -- watching the younger Canning fire scores from all angles or open up a defence with a pass that few others would see, let alone execute -- it's a moot point whether the ancient game can ever be construed as "hard" or difficult for Galway's powerhouse No14. Even against Kilkenny.

Canning, though, is not here to talk about himself -- he's more interested in talking up the massive challenge facing Galway in Sunday's Leinster SHC final at Croke Park. Not to mention bemoaning the recent red card crackdown by officialdom -- and the alleged myopia of certain umpires.

Some observers have suggested that Kilkenny's 19-point cakewalk against Dublin masked signs of rustiness in the history-chasing champions. "I'd nearly say the opposite," Canning demurs, speaking at a Supermac's promotional drive to get the people of Ireland behind their county team.

"It's a bit scary really -- looking at this time last year they only beat Dublin by six points in a Leinster final, and they beat them by something like 19 points the last day so they nearly tripled their effort. They rested a lot of their established players, the guys in the late twenties, early thirties, so that is always good for a team coming in very fresh with a good physical game against Dublin behind them. They are looking even better this year than they were the last couple of years."

Galway cannot claim to be so fresh, not after two surprisingly fraught encounters with Offaly.

The Croke Park stalemate and Portlaoise replay thrilled the watching public but raised myriad question marks about Galway's supposed status as the mostly likely pretenders to Kilkenny's All-Ireland -- not just provincial -- throne.


"They were very tough games in the last two weeks, especially coming in to play Kilkenny," Canning admits. "You want to be in peak physical condition and you want to be as fresh as possible. Obviously that's not going to happen when you are actually after playing the last two weekends. We've seen it last year when we played Waterford and we got caught, playing three weekends in a row, and we're just hoping now this year that won't happen the same way."

Already this summer, Canning has completed the fastest century in hurling championship history and his latest 1-2 haul in the Offaly replay brought his running total to 10-83 (113 points) from 11 outings.

It's true that he hasn't fully sparkled in the same way that illuminated Croke Park last March (in All-Ireland club final defeat) or Thurles last May (NHL final victory over Cork) ... but he has still tallied 3-10 (2-7 from play) during Galway's three Leinster outings thus far. And a measure of his genius was that remarkable injury-time point from under the O'Moore Park stand, edging Galway back in front against Offaly last Saturday night.

Earlier in that half, Canning's frustration was all too palpable after another 'point' was waved wide (revenge for Ger Farragher's phantom point in the drawn game, Offaly fans might counter). "The other umpire after the match told me it was three or four foot inside the post and he couldn't do anything about it," the Portumna man recalls.

"I wouldn't mind if there was only an inch or two between the posts ... it's very frustrating, especially in a close game. That could have been the difference between winning and losing the game."

A day later, in another code and another hemisphere, we had Frank Lampard's disallowed goal for England and a fresh wave of calls for FIFA to introduce goal-line technology. It begs the question should the GAA contemplate something similar -- but this would be "way, way a step too far" for an amateur game, according to Canning, who concludes: "The other umpire said it was a point and I don't see why he can't overrule that guy in those situations. It should be the linesman as well -- he was right behind me and he should have seen the exact same thing as I've seen, but he couldn't do it either."

Speaking of match officials, he is aghast at the recent glut of red cards that have decorated the early championship weeks. Galway themselves have endured straight reds for Andy Smith (against Wexford) and David Burke ("very harshly", according to Canning, last Saturday).

"I don't think it is the referees' fault. They are being told what to do and, if they don't implement it, they are going to get a bollicking off whoever is over them, the assessors or whoever," Canning complains.

"I think it is just people with lots of time on their hands looking for fickle little things to try and clean up the game. But hurling was never dirty. There have been more red cards this year I'd say than in five years put together probably, for nothing.

"There hasn't been a dirty stroke where you would say 'Yeah, he deserves a red card'. It's a physical game, it's a contact game at the end of the day. The way they are going now, it will end up like a game of tiddlywinks in a couple of years' time."

Maybe so. But no one is expecting tiddlywinks on Sunday.