Eamonn Sweeney: 'He has scored seven goals in seven games - but Seamus Callanan is still underrated'
It might seem odd to say that Seamus Callanan is one of hurling's most under-rated players. After all, he's showered with praise on a regular basis. All the same I don't think we realise just how good he is. It may take a bravura performance today before everyone acknowledges his standing as an undisputed all-time great.
Suggesting that Callanan has had to overcome adversity to reach the pinnacle of the game may also seem counter-intuitive. Yet he is no stranger to frustration. The sailing has not been entirely plain for him since that explosive initial impact on the inter-county scene as he secured All Star nominations in 2008 and 2009 while still an under 21.
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Big, quick, extremely elusive, blessed with a sublime first touch and with a ruthless eye for goal, Callanan looked sure to become one of the game's elite forwards. Yet when Tipp made the breakthrough in the 2010 All-Ireland final the Drom-Inch man was on the bench. He started the following year's decider but was withdrawn at half-time and was a sub again in 2012, having dropped behind the likes of John O'Brien and Pa Bourke in the pecking order. Declan Ryan seemed sceptical about the young star.
The arrival of Eamon O'Shea brought no immediate change. When Tipperary exited the 2013 championship against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park Callanan was again excluded from the starting 15 though he came on for the injured Lar Corbett. He'd come to be regarded as a kind of luxury forward, adept at piling on the scores when Tipp were on top but slightly suspect in the more testing championship encounters.
Everything changed for Callanan in 2014. He didn't just shine in that year's championship, he began one of the greatest sustained periods of individual excellence in the history of the game. The qualifier match in July of that year against Galway seemed to be the pivot around which it all turned for both player and team.
A Tipp team which had lost to Limerick in the Munster championship got off to a lumbering start and trailed by six points with just 20 minutes left. But they then went on a run of 2-10 to 0-1 which included two goals from Callanan, who finished with 3-1 from play.
There were two more goals against Cork in the semi-final and seven points from play in the drawn final against Kilkenny. When Brian Cody and the Cats figured out the Tipperary attack in the replay Callanan was the exception as he bagged another two goals.
The following year saw him give one of the best performances in All-Ireland semi-final history, 3-5 from play against Galway. He looked completely unplayable that day but Tipperary somehow managed to lose the game by a point.
In 2016 the emergence of John McGrath took some of the weight off Callanan, who didn't reach quite the same heights as he had in the previous two seasons. Not, at least, until he got to the decider where he hit a match-winning nine points from play. It might have been the greatest display of sharp-shooting in All-Ireland final history.
Still just 27, Seamus Callanan was at the peak of his form. Yet the two following seasons made you wonder if that final was as good as it was going to get for him. The same precise finishing touch wasn't there in 2017 when he failed to convert one on ones against both Cork and Galway, misses which may have cost Tipp victory in both games.
A back injury curtailed him last season and by the time he started in the championship, Tipperary were on their way out after a disastrous campaign. There was talk of the old team being broken up. The arrival of Liam Sheedy, who'd dropped him in 2010, may have seemed ominous to Callanan. It seemed unlikely he'd ever dominate a championship like he had from 2014 to '16.
Yet he enters the final on the verge of an achievement as remarkable in its way as that of the 2016 decider. Should he find the net today, Callanan will have scored a goal in every round of the championship, seven games in all. No-one's done anything like that before.
There's been something to admire about all of them, the body swerve which took him clear against Limerick, the sheer technical ability involved in the goal against Wexford where he cuts the ball first-time to his left while moving at top speed to his right, the way he instinctively makes space and finishes when the ball comes back to him off the woodwork against Clare, the sureness of touch against Cork though the game is just two minutes old.
More impressive still has been his consistent assumption of leadership in attack. Tipp began the championship with Jason Forde, Bubbles O'Dwyer and John McGrath shooting the lights out yet the form of all three has been fitful of late.
Callanan, on the other hand, has maintained the same high standard throughout and has been Tipperary's top or joint top scorer from play in all but one of their matches. If the Premier are to win today they'll need a big game from at least two of the other three. But it's almost impossible to see them prevailing should their number 14 be curtailed.
He'll face his toughest opponent of the summer, the excellent Huw Lawlor whose strength, mobility and intelligence have more than compensated for his inexperience up to this. Their battle may be the most crucial one of all today.
If Callanan wins it and steers Tipp home he will never be under-rated again.
Sunday Indo Sport