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Bryan Keane/INPHO Conor Whelan has been a standout performer for Galway in the opening stages of their Leinster SHC campaign.
# Star Man
The former Young Hurler of the Year steering Galway's ship in Canning's absence
Kinvara’s Conor Whelan has established himself as a real leader in Micheál Donoghue’s side.

AS WE HEAD for the third phase of the Leinster SHC, star forward Joe Canning will be on week 10 of his recovery.

His impending absence was signposted well in advance of the championship as he required surgery for the serious groin injury he picked up in Galway’s Division 1 semi-final against Waterford.

Given his already cemented status as a hurling legend, questions immediately followed about how Micheál Donoghue’s side would adjust to his temporary loss in attack.

Their first two outings in the Leinster championship have yielded a win and a draw as they prepare for their rest week ahead of a trip to Nowlan Park for a crunch tie against Kilkenny.

And in Kinvara forward Conor Whelan, Galway have uncovered a leader who can steady the ship before the Portumna star’s return.

Conor Whelan, Jason Flynn and Davey Glennon celebrate James Crombie / INPHO Conor Whelan celebrating Galway's All-Ireland final victory in 2017. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The 2017 Young Hurler of the Year has been a cornerstone figure in the Galway attack since making a breakthrough to the senior ranks in 2015.

Good defensive work and a strong work ethic have always been hallmark traits of his game, as well as the orthodox skills of a lively forward.

And at 22 years of age, Whelan is using those tools to establish himself as a leader in the Galway team.

Alongside Conor Cooney, he was their joint top-scorer from play in their opening game of the Leinster round-robin series against Carlow.

Cooney finished with four scores [1-3] while Whelan picked off four points in what turned out to be a narrow win for the reigning provincial champions. 

He continued to impose his influence against Wexford last weekend, making five key contributions in the opening half, which included three points from play.

While many of the players were misfiring in the biting gales swirling around Pearse Stadium, Whelan was able to find his range and help Galway into a 0-10 0-4 advantage at the break.

Defensive Effort

With the clock approaching seven minutes, Wexford goalkeeper Mark Fanning opted to take a short puckout. He delivered a pass to Damien Reck who had Whelan for company out near the sideline.

The defender miscontrolled the ball slightly, allowing the Galway attacker to pounce. Whelan’s aggressive tackling was rewarded as referee Johnny Murphy punished Reck for over-carrying and signalled a free to Galway.

Whelan1 RTÉ Player Whelan's aggression RTÉ Player

Reck was forced to leave the field as a blood sub with a facial injury as a result of the clash, leading many to question whether Whelan was guilty of a head-high challenge.

Niall Burke missed the resultant free but Whelan’s turnover was an influential piece of play.

Whelan was alert to ambush a Wexford player once again in the 23rd minute, as he flicked the ball out of Kevin Foley’s grasp to reclaim possession. His intervention allowed Galway to launch another shot at the posts, but the relentless Salthill wind dragged the ball wide.

He also forced Wexford substitute Jack O’Connor to take too many steps with the ball shortly before the hour mark, an important turnover that took some of the momentum away from Davy Fitzgerald’s side who were starting to claw their way back into the game.

Big Game Moments 

Whelan won some crucial aerial battles against Wexford which resulted in scores for Galway.

His first point of the game arrived on eight minutes after he outmatched blood sub Shane Reck in the air to fetch a long Cathal Mannion delivery before turning and drilling the ball between the posts.

That point came at an important time as it pushed Galway into a 0-3 to 0-0 lead and really got their scoreboard moving after a spell of wayward shooting in the opening minutes.

Whelan excelled in the air once again in the 40th minute as he plucked the ball from a Padraic Mannion free that was taken from inside Galway’s half of the field.

Whelan 3 RTÉ Player Whelan excelling in the air. RTÉ Player

He secured a free for Galway in the process which Jason Flynn converted.

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Whelan’s second point of the afternoon was another big moment for the home side. After gathering the ball in the centre of the field, he judged the unpredictable wind perfectly to launch a long-range shot over the bar. 

Canning has been given a recovery window of 14-16 weeks, and it’s hoped he will be fit to return to the Galway fold in time for the Leinster final on 30 June.

Should they reach the decider again to go for three-in-a-row, his presence among the forwards will be a welcome sight.

His accuracy from dead ball situations has been missed. Flynn and Burke appear to be sharing that duty for now, but Canning is their settled free-taker and will surely be standing over the frees again when he returns.

Joe Canning Tommy Dickson / INPHO Joe Canning is getting closer to making his return. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Galway were unconvincing in their win over Carlow and relinquished a six-point lead to play out a draw against Wexford. They even trailed the visitors by a point at one stage.

With away ties against the Cats and Dublin still awaiting the Tribesmen in their remaining round-robin outings, they need leaders to steady the ship.

Whelan is certainly fulfilling that role and leading the charge at the moment.

Gavan Casey is joined by Murray Kinsella and Sean Farrell for a review of the 2018/19 season, and cast an eye forward to next year and the Rugby World Cup in Japan.:

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