There was a strange vein of thought just about visible Sunday night in the aftermath of Galway’s loss to Kilkenny in the Leinster final. As we all know, Joe Canning scored a stunner of a goal in the first half and ended up with 1-9 out of Galway’s total of 2-15. Murmurs of discontent where visible. “Canning could have done more”, “Galway need more out of Joe Canning”, “Is Joe Canning doing enough for Galway?” My reaction was – if that’s what you want, can Galway please help Joe Canning?
In the build up to the game, Dónal O’Grady made a point that is often forgotten in our analysis of forwards. When talking about the battle between Joey Holden and Canning, O’Grady discussed how full-back is a very difficult position as you are completely dependent on the men playing around you. The inverse is true for a forward. If good ball is not going in, there’s not a lot you can do.
This is obvious from watching Kilkenny in attack. The ball is moving into space, dragging defenders out of position. Kilkenny yesterday were without the marauding runs from deep of Michael Fennelly who brilliantly exploits those holes. Kilkenny look somewhat like a top class NBA offence as they are constantly looking for the best shot, not just a shot. When this in combined with the Kilkenny forward’s ability to win any scrappy ball through strength and determination as well as their sheer hunger for the second ball, it becomes obvious why defenders look so exposed against the Cats
Galway on the other hand seemed a lot less tactically astute and patient. So much of their ball looked to be just driven down the field and let the forwards do their thing. When the ball was won by the forwards, there seemed to be an over-abundance of multiple Galway men jumping for high balls, which the men from the Marble City just broke and swept up. It is apparent that the Galway half forwards were largely cleaned out.
It might be a tactic for Colm Callinan in the Galway goals to shorten his puck outs to alleviate this. He has a fantastic long puck, but the sheer length of his drives was putting Galway in trouble. By dropping the ball about thirty yards out from the goal, his own half forwards were back pedalling to try and get under the sliotar, the space was compressed inside. This meant that the Kilkenny corner backs were attacking the ball with glee and the half backs were sweeping up with abandon. When the Tribesmen did catch clean ball, this compression just left so little space for anyone to move into and create. Even in the second half, Jason Flynn’s goal came from the rare occasion a Kilkenny defender didn’t clean up a breaking ball. The sliotar ran into Flynn’s path with a clean run to the goal. More on this in a moment.
The impact of this on Canning is huge. Firstly, Canning is probably the most dangerous hurler one-on-one. His unique combination of pace, power and skill allows him to destroy nearly every corner back in the country. The problem is, Galway’s attack never put him in an ounce of space. Due to Galway’s inability to win primary ball and disturb the Kilkenny defensive set up, the Galway half backs and midfielders were resorting to just driving the ball down the field to Canning. This ball was wildly inconsistent.
The long pass in from Andy Smith for the goal was unique on the day because it was exactly what Canning wanted; the full-forward pointed towards Smith for the ballot be hit in ahead of him when the Galway midfielder was seizing up his options. The ball allowed Canning to get a run on Joey Holden, twist him out of position and exploit the full back. Similarly, with the second Galway goal, Smith floated the ball in front of Canning, which allowed him to attack the ball aggressively.
His presence sucked in two Kilkenny players, and created the space for Jason Flynn to attack. That’s where Galway should be putting the ball at all times. Too much of the ball towards Canning was dropping down on top of his head, much like the puck outs to the half forwards, allowing at least one, if not two, Kilkenny backs to get a jump on Joe from behind. That ball’s not good enough. That’s the type of ball a full back dreams of at night, along with torn No. 14 jerseys filled with dismembered body parts.
So what can Galway do to help Joe Canning? Against the top teams, Galway needs to find a way to isolate Canning more. Kilkenny negated this by dropping Richie Hogan in front of him, so it isn’t easy. What the Tribesmen definitely need to do is put ball ahead of Canning. Leave Joe with a third of a pitch to himself. Play another type of NBA offence, a pure isolation revolving around one player. He’s going to suck in double-and triple teams. We know he can exploit them, by pass or by score. By giving him room and freedom, Canning will be able to act as the skeleton key to all defences. Let’s be honest, Galway are going to go as far as Joe Canning brings them, so what have they to lose?