Cunningham's quandary over 'free' role as Canning returns for Tribesmen
Joe Canning's return to the Galway team for Sunday's Allianz Hurling League semi-final against Kilkenny leaves manager Anthony Cunningham with a free-taking dilemma.
The captain came on as a sub against Limerick in the quarter-final and is poised to make his first start of the season for Galway after helping Portumna win the All-Ireland club title – but will he be handed the free-taking duties?
Canning has been Galway's regular free-taker for several seasons, but Conor Cooney did very well in his absence during the league, scoring a total of 3-29 from penalties, frees and '65s' in six games. Cunningham must now decide between Canning, who is regarded as one of the best dead-ball strikers of his generation, and the 21-year-old St Thomas' clubman, who has proved so reliable.
Conor Hayes, who captained Galway to All-Ireland glory in 1987-88 and who managed them for four seasons (2003-2006), believes that Cunningham should retain Cooney as free-taker – for now.
"Conor has been excellent off frees this year and I think it would be unfair to take him off them," said Hayes.
"Everyone knows how good Canning is, but Cooney is the man in possession. He has been consistently accurate from all over the place. You have to wonder what it would do to his confidence if the frees were taken off him after going so well."
It will be interesting to see who Cunning-ham assigns to free-taking for a game which could have a crucial bearing on Galway's season.
A sloppy performance against Kilkenny in last year's league semi-final (Galway lost by seven points) was the prelude to an equally poor championship campaign, where they lost to Dublin and Clare.
"Galway have got to be targeting the league. Of the four teams left, Galway and Tipperary need to reach the final more than Kilkenny and Clare," added Hayes. "It doesn't mean it's going to happen that way, but Galway have got to make a mark soon or the progress made in 2012 will be forgotten."
Hayes was left disappointed when Cunningham's men failed to build on that progress and bowed out of the 2013 championship in tame fashion against Clare at the quarter-final stage.
He said: "They're still one of the teams that are there or thereabouts, but last year was an opportunity for them. They should have stolen a march on the other teams and pushed on a bit. That didn't happen and they didn't perform against Clare. Look at last year and you didn't have to beat Kilkenny to win a Leinster and if they'd done that, they would have been at the All-Ireland semi-final stage without Kilkenny and Tipp involved.
"Galway should nearly be next in line on the pecking order in that one, but they failed to get past the All-Ireland quarter-final stage, when Clare opened up and started playing this brand of hurling that they're using now. Galway could have beaten them, but they just didn't perform. That's the kind of game they should have won. They were more experienced than Clare and had a lot of things going for them but maybe they made too many changes between the Leinster championship and the quarter-final."
But Hayes has detected a more "settled" look to the Galway team this year, with full-back Ronan Burke and centre-back Iarla Tannian occupying the pivotal defensive positions that have proved troublesome. And Hayes has insisted that returning captain Canning must be played close to goal for maximum impact.
"Joe's a good player no matter where he plays, but he's a real threat in the full-forward line. One break in there and he's very difficult to stop."