Thursday 18 January 2018

'Galway will win the All-Ireland this year' - Ex-Tribesmen star very bullish on championship chances

Joe Canning congratulates Conor Cooney (L) after his goal against Dublin in the Leinster SHC quarter-final in Tullamore. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Joe Canning congratulates Conor Cooney (L) after his goal against Dublin in the Leinster SHC quarter-final in Tullamore. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Jackie Cahill

Damien Hayes tells it as he plays it - straight. And the former Galway star is in no doubt. This is finally the year when the Tribesmen will win the All-Ireland senior hurling title for the first time since 1988.

He declares, without hesitation, that: "Galway will win the All-Ireland this year. They're good enough, strong enough and have been there long enough.

"They could have won it the last two years. Lads are saying Galway will win the All-Ireland and I'm saying it now.

"They have the players, a mature set-up and a team that hasn't changed much in the last three years."

On paper, Galway look well set to end that 29-year famine.

If you're looking for a central spine, they don't come much better than All-Star Daithi Burke at full-back, Gearóid McInerney at centre-back, another All-Star, David Burke, at midfield, Joe Canning in the centre-forward position and young pair Conor Whelan and Cathal Mannion tearing it up inside.

In the eyes of many observers, Canning holds the key. Operating in that floating number 11 role, he's been a revelation this year, having recovered from a hamstring injury sustained in last year's All-Ireland semi-final defeat against Tipperary that threatened his career.

He remains Galway's scorer-in-chief but his supreme hurling intelligence and link-play is allowing others around him to flourish.

In 44 senior championship appearances to date, Canning has racked up an incredible tally of 25-314, or an average of almost nine points per game.

He burst onto the senior inter-county stage in 2008 with a haul of 2-6 on his debut against Antrim, before adding nine points in the victory over Laois and a remarkable 2-12 when Galway exited the championship.

Canning's displays earned him the Young Hurler of the Year award and his 4-27 from three games accounted for almost 44 per cent of Galway's entire championship total.

Since then, Galway have been heavily reliant on him in each summer campaign.

In 2009, he accounted for 42.30 per cent of Galway's scores, finishing as the country's top scorer, before dropping to 25 per cent in 2010.

It was back up to 31.5 per cent in 2011, and increased again to 35 per cent in 2012 and a whopping 45 per cent a year later.

In 2014, Canning's percentage dropped to a modest 16.83 but it was back up in 2015, to 36.27 per cent, when he again finished as the country's leading marksman.

In 2016, Canning collected 1-35 in five championship outings, finishing with a 29.23 per cent share of Galway's overall total, but that figure could have been better had he not been forced off at half-time against Tipperary.

In two games to date this summer, against Dublin and Offaly, Canning has banged over 0-16, which is 23 per cent of Galway's combined total from those games.

What's increasingly evident is his ability to influence what others, Mannion and Whelan chiefly, are doing.

Hayes, Canning's Portumna clubmate, notes: "The most important thing about that role is that players must find your link-man.

"Other players are doing that, and need to get a bit of praise as well, but he's certainly enjoying the role.

"It will be interesting to see the next day, with Wexford playing a sweeper, how well he'll do in that role again but I think Croke Park will suit Galway a lot better than Wexford. They (Wexford) will be exposed a lot more than on any other pitch."

Former Wexford defender Declan Ruth understands the challenge facing the Slaneysiders at Croke Park on Sunday - but says they can cope.

With Shaun Murphy expected to fill the sweeper role again, that provides a comfort blanket of sorts for Wexford, allowing them to maintain six at the back while at the same time deploying a man-marker on Canning.

Ruth, a redoubtable centre-back in his playing days, would go with joint-captain Matthew O'Hanlon in a one-on-one battle with Canning.

And he believes that Wexford's system can nullify the Canning influence.

Ruth says: "If you look at the league final, Tipp played with the traditional six backs and two midfielders.

"He (Canning) was drifting off into the middle and to the wings, picking up ball.

"Most centre-backs are told to hold the centre and the '45. That's grand if teams are delivering hit-and-miss balls, driving them down the centre.

"Of course, then, Ronan Maher or any good centre-back is going to clean up.

"They're going to get the ball directly, or take a handpass off somebody around them, and look like an All-Star.

"Galway obviously knew that Joe was roaming so they weren't going to drive balls down the middle, they were going to pick him out and all of a sudden, he was on a lot more ball.

"He can either take it on then and shoot from distance, which he's capable of, or feed it inside.

"The mistake is, and we made it through the years even though sweepers were never really in fashion, is that if you have a player like that, you have to man-mark him, and follow him wherever he goes.

"Wexford will have a sweeper there and so it should suit them a lot better than Tipp.

"Even if Joe takes on Matthew O'Hanlon, there's another buffer to go through."

But it's no longer all about the 'Joe show', as Hayes points out.

He says: "Conor Whelan is unbelievable, a great bit of stuff, and he scored seven points against Offaly.

"He's odds-on for Young Hurler of the Year, it's between him and the Cork wing-back Mark Coleman, a two-horse race.

"All of the Galway forwards are playing very well."

And therein lies the new Galway challenge for not only Wexford, but any opponents who cross their path between now and the end of the season.

Irish Independent

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