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Martin Breheny: Canning has poked Cats with a stick

WHEN the words "not sportsmanlike" are linked to arguably the greatest hurler in history, it reverberates beyond the GAA world and into the broader sporting sphere.

When they are uttered by a young man who, in time, could be a contender for the same description, they become a subject of total fascination as a curious public wonder what exactly is going on.

And when they emerge three days after a drawn All-Ireland clash which featured both players, they assume greater intrigue, especially with the replay to come in a few weeks' time.

Joe Canning's description of Henry Shefflin as "not sportsmanlike", arising from an incident in Sunday's All-Ireland final, is quite extraordinary. Canning claimed that Shefflin ran "30 or 40 yards down the field and was giving out to Barry Kelly (referee) and Damien Hayes (Galway) for a free."

At face value, Canning's words might look innocent enough, a throwaway comment not worthy of much consideration.

But when he questions the sportsmanship of one of hurling's great icons 18 days before the Galway-Kilkenny rematch, it would be naïve to think that it wouldn't send the temperature in Croke Park soaring so high on September 30 that the whole of Dublin 3 will feel the blast of heat.

Nor did Canning leave it at that as he also implied that Kilkenny full-back JJ Delaney had given the distinct impression that he thought Shefflin should have backed himself and gone for goal from a penalty in the 68th minute.

In an age when most comments from GAA players are bland and platitudinous at any time of year, let alone in the tense times around All-Ireland finals, Canning's deviation from the script is most unusual and raises the question why did he do it?

He was being interviewed by a number of reporters in Thurles to publicise Saturday's Clare-Kilkenny U-21 hurling final -- so he knew his comments would spread to a wide audience.

And with due respect to the U-21 final, Canning's reaction to the senior final was always going to be the main source of interest. Did he make the mistake of linking Shefflin and "not sportsmanlike" together and thinking they wouldn't cause a controversy? Did he do it anyway and not care about the fall-out? Or did he do it deliberately, just to spice up the rematch?

The last option is the least plausible. Why would Galway want to poke the Cats with a fiery stick at a time when both sides have retreated to base camp to prepare for the replay?

Both counties ran press nights for the drawn game where players and managements spent their time endlessly praising the opposition.

Given that background, one suspects that Galway manager Anthony Cunningham will be dismayed by a development which he could never have anticipated.

He is a meticulous planner, micro-managing everything in minute detail, so the last thing he wanted was a controversy to arise from a press conference organised to promote a U-21 final which doesn't even involve Galway.

As for Kilkenny, they will sit silently on this and hope to turn it into a psychological gain for the replay. Quite how they do that remains to be seen but they will certainly try to glean some advantage.


As for observers -- both inside and outside Galway -- there's an unmistakable upside to this. Isn't it refreshing to hear a player make even one comment which might be deemed somewhat risqué?

No doubt, there will be some po-faced media analysis of Canning's comments over the coming weeks claiming that his remarks were out of order.

Now quite why the media would ever query straightforward talking remains a mystery, but it most assuredly will happen.

For Canning, it's unlikely to affect him. He has lived in a competitive hot-house since his early teens and never allowed it to deflect him from his desire to become one of hurling's greatest exponents.

He might be taken aback by the reaction to his comments yesterday, but then big names attract big attention.

As for Shefflin, he will be as surprised as everybody else to see the words "not sportsmanlike" anywhere near his name.

As for claims that JJ Delaney wanted him to go for a goal from the penalty, it's a matter for philosophical debate between the pair after training some night. It should be a lively affair.

Irish Independent