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Dublin: 13 °C Wednesday 21 August, 2019
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'I actually tore the bone off the bone. I knew I did fairly serious damage'

In a wide-ranging interview, Joe Canning discusses the groin injury that derailed his season, playing golf with Shane Lowry and the rise of tactics in hurling.

FOR JOE CANNING, the 83 days of frustration were over.

Joe Canning comes on as a sub Joe Canning comes on as a sub against Dublin. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

A lengthy absence from the Galway jersey ended with his 47nd-minute introduction against Dublin on the final day of the Leinster SHC round-robin.

Canning trotted onto the Parnell Park turf and the travelling Galway rose to greet him for the first time since March, when he suffered a devastating injury to his left groin in the league quarter-final defeat to Waterford. 

He had them on their feet again minutes later when he scored with his first touch. And again with his second. But this was no clichéd comeback.

The only scenario that could have ended Galway’s summer transpired. Dublin’s win combined with the draw between Kilkenny and Wexford sent the 2017 All-Ireland champions crashing from the championship in mid-June. 

“It was hard to take because you weren’t expecting to be out like that,” Canning tells The42. “But it’s just the way it is and you have to suck it up and get on with it.

“It’s hard to take for a while and it still is because you’re going, ‘How did it happen?’ We were going to try and win that game, that’s the way we were approaching it and that’s the way we approach every game.

“In the last three years, 2017, ’18 and ’19, I think we’ve played 20 championship matches – we’ve lost two. That’s not a bad consistency. To be out of the championship after losing one game is tough to take but that’s just the way it is and that’s life.

“You wouldn’t think about, ‘If we lose today, we’re gone.’ You know? And it was hard to believe that was the reality of it because going into the match you’re not even thinking about that, you’re just thinking about trying to win the game.

“To be straight up about it, you don’t really have any interest in what other teams do after you’re out yourself,” he admits.

Joe Canning_Audi2020_01 Joe Canning is an Audi Galway ambassador. Source: Evan Doherty

He sits here in a west Dublin studio, just back from a two-week holiday, reflecting on a frustrating year where he missed “99% of championship.” It’s been a quieter summer than usual.

Despite Galway’s early exit, Portumna are not back out in club championship until 17 August.

At the beginning of the month, he played in a four-ball at the Irish Open Pro-Am alongside Cian Lynch, Shane O’Donnell and Shane Lowry. Less than three weeks later, Lowry was celebrating his Open Championship success. Canning has shared the golf course with the Offaly man a couple of times and sent him a congratulatory text after he lifted the Claret Jug. 

“It was unbelievable wasn’t it, what he did,” he smiles. “It’s amazing for Ireland and obviously for him to be a major champion, it’s pretty cool. He’s a sound fella. He enjoys the craic and he’s just a normal person really. There’s no airs or graces about him so I think that’s why everybody loves him.”

Joe Canning with Shane Lowry on the 6th hole Canning and Shane Lowry during the Irish Open Pro-Am. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

For a winner like Canning, it will take some time before the disappointment of his own 2019 season leaves him. He put in a solid winter’s training and was in Micheal Donoghue’s starting team for their league opener against Laois on 27 January.

He started four of their five Division 1B games before the injury occurred when Kevin Moran met him with a shoulder as he bore down on the Waterford goal in the dying minutes of the game.

“I was fine from the shoulder it was only when I actually hit the ground with my right shoulder, then my leg was up in the air,” he explains. “From the impact of hitting the ground my leg just went a little bit and I felt it straight away.

“Your groin – your adductor longus – is attached to your pubic bone, so I actually tore the bone off the bone. It was attached to it and I just took the bone off the bone.  

“I had actually done my hamstring two years ago as well in the 2016 semi-final, so it was a similar feel to the hamstring, the same leg as well – my left leg. I knew I did fairly serious damage.

“I got surgery the following week to put two rods back into my pubic bone to try and reattach it back onto it. Very much the same as Josh van der Flier’s injury with the rugby (in May) so it was the same thing. It was a little worse than…I think it was a dead leg that was being reported.”

Joe Canning challenged by Kevin Moran Canning is challenged by Kevin Moran as he races through. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Joe Canning lays injured Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Canning’s injury hung like a shadow during the summer, but an initial report suggested that it wasn’t as bad as first feared. The rumour-mill amused him, although it’s something he’s become accustomed to over the years in the spotlight.

“I found it funny, in a way, because it was reported by a journalist in Galway who obviously didn’t know the facts,” he says. “So it was just bad journalism really but you get that a lot of the time. I just found it funny and I kind of laughed it off, to be honest. If you actually think about it, you don’t get taken off in a stretcher for a dead leg.”

Galway went unbeaten in their first three round-robin games in Leinster, but without Canning they’d lost their talisman and spiritual leader. And he had to face into another lengthy period of rehabilitation. 

“I’m fairly positive in a way in that I want to get back sooner than people tell me. My attitude would be that if someone put me down or told me I can’t do something, I try and prove them wrong.

“It’s a little bit different when a surgeon or doctor is telling you you’ll be out for this amount (of time). It’s not in a bad way that I just want to, not to prove them wrong, but I want to get back quicker than I can.”

Joe Canning goes off injured Canning is stretchered off in Nowlan Park. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The surgeon told him he’d miss 14 to 16 weeks. He resumed full training within 10 weeks.

“I got back quicker and that’s my way of dealing with it, with any injury. From injuries before, I’ve healed fairly quickly. I don’t know what it is, myself I heal quickly. I don’t know (why), some people heal quickly and some don’t.

“I was fine coming into the Dublin game, I was back fully training two weeks at that stage so it was fine. I hit all my markers and it’s grand again. It was the same as it was with my hamstring a few years ago, it was the same kind of injury.”

This wasn’t the first time he had to come face to face with his own athletic mortality. It was his third major surgery to undergo in the last four years. During the first-half of the that All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Tipperary in 2016 he tore his hamstring off the bone.

It was a career-threatening injury, one that ended Paul O’Connell’s playing days. 

The initial prognosis was that it would take him at least seven or eight months to return, but Canning came back inside six. Then, in the middle of Galway’s All-Ireland winning campaign of 2017, he underwent surgery to get “the cartilage done” on his knee. There were early fears he’d be ruled out for the season. He didn’t miss a game.

“In the last few years I suppose I’ve had surgery between my hamstring, my knee and my groin. It’s probably just wear and tear.

“The hamstring and groin are kind of freak injuries in a way. For a stage there it seemed like everybody was pulling their hamstring off the bone for a while. The groin was just a freak one and the knee is probably just wear and tear from years (of playing).

“My groin and hamstring are fine, my knee will still plague me for another while as long as I’m probably playing. That’s kind of frustrating alright, the knee a little bit because you have to try and manage it as best you can.

Joe Canning injured Canning is forced to depart the action in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final with a hamstring injury. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“But that’s part and parcel of it. It’s kind of what you sign up for, you’re going to get injuries in some way, shape or form. So I don’t mind it too much. But it was frustrating this year because I missed 99% of championship.

“That’s the frustrating part, when you miss out on games. In the other few years I missed it throughout the winter so it wasn’t as bad but you still missed out on club and stuff like that. I haven’t done much hurling since April really so that’s the frustrating part for me, they’re the months you want to be playing.” 

So Canning is reduced to the role of spectator for the remainder of the All-Ireland series. “At the end of the day when your own county isn’t involved you don’t take as much notice into it,” he says. “Once Galway’s gone, I wouldn’t be shouting for any county.” 

One man he has close ties with though is his former LIT manager Davy Fitzgerald. Back in 2016, Fitzgerald had a health scare the week his Clare side were due to face Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Fitzgerald underwent a minor heart procedure days before the game but returned to the sideline for the clash. Canning hailed his return afterwards, remarking: “Our health is our wealth, so it was great to see Davy on the line again today. That’s what it’s all about.”

The pair won a Fitzgibbon Cup title together in 2007. Over the weekend, Fitzgerald watched his Wexford side fall agonisingly short against Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final. The Clare native cut an emotional figure in the wake of the defeat and Canning is acutely aware of the close bond he likes to create with his teams. 

“Davy would do anything for you,” he remarks. “He’d have them believing they’re the best team in Ireland, no doubt about it and he’d make you believe in him. That’s huge. Belief in a team of thinking you’re the best is a long way to getting to there. He has this unity.

Davy Fitzgerald Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald with his team at the weekend. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“When we were training in LIT he tried to break us, but he created the mental strength. He’s actually very calm most of the time. He’d be having the craic and chatting away to you. He’d be very good that way, he’d be almost like a friend to you but he doesn’t cross the line obviously because he’s the manager. 

“But I’m sure if you asked anyone that trained under him, he’d do anything for you. Even outside of sport. Davy’s good and I think he likes to give off that thing maybe that he’s a bit mad but he’s totally different. Tactically he’s very smart as well, he’s always throwing up new stuff the whole time and trying to evolve the whole time.”

The conversation moves from Fitzgerald onto tactics in hurling. Canning believes it’s not yet appreciated in the media just how tactical the game has become, even since he made his senior debut as a fresh-faced teenager in 2008.

“I laugh sometimes at match reports and stuff like that. It’s pretty obvious really, different teams the way they play. But yet it can’t be seen outside of teams and groups, you know?

“You approach different games in different ways. Small little things. I remember last year we played Clare in the semi-final and at stages they played with no centre-forward. It was kind of like, ‘I didn’t see that before.’ Different things like that that you see. 

Jamie Shanahan and Conor Cleary with Joe Canning Jamie Shanahan and Conor Cleary tackle Canning during last year's championship meeting. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“We played a team before and we knew that most balls being delivered were going into one corner in particular so we could tell our backs to take a step that side and it worked for us. Small things like that, you’ve traits in different teams throughout.

“But lots of different teams have plans A, B, C now that if it doesn’t work you try something different. It’s probably easier to us I suppose when you’re watching it but even against teams I wouldn’t play against, after a few minutes [he snaps his fingers] you’d see it.

“Even that thing about the difference between Munster and Leinster, I’ve never seen it written about that it’s more tactical matches and more defensive in Leinster and tighter pitches, compared to Munster where it’s nearly 15 on 15 and, ‘We’ll just outscore each other.’”

Expanding on his point about the differences between both provinces, he says: “It’s very competitive, the Leinster championship. It’s a different championship than the Munster championship. People say Munster is way better than Leinster. That’s fine but it’s higher scores in the Munster, it’s more open hurling.

“Leinster is more condensed, more tactical I suppose, smaller, tighter venues, you’re not playing in your Pairc Ui Chaoimh or Thurles in big open expanses.”

He’s in favour of expanding the Leinster championship to include more teams – “the more the merrier” – and in an ideal scenario would love to play “10 or 12 championship matches in a year.”

Joe Canning Canning watches on during Galway's draw with Wexford. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Canning takes a dimmer view when it comes to proposed changes to the sport. Black cards and a heavier sliotar are among the tweaks some pundits would like to see brought in. He disagrees.

“I don’t understand why they want to change the game. What’s wrong with it? We probably had one of the best championships last year.

“This year I don’t know if it’s as probably strong as last year but it’s always hard to kind of compare and contrast. The black card thing – are they trying to make it less physical for spectators or players? The ball being lighter? What difference would it make really?

“Do they want it less of a spectacle and have less scores? The game has evolved so much. At the start of the summer, I turned on eir Sport and they were showing games from a few years ago.

“Even, when I started out in 2008 the game that time if you were a back you got it and just drove it down the field. Like, that’s only 10 years ago. If you got a ball and you just lamped it down the field you’d probably be whipped off. So I’d leave the game as it is.

“The rules are fine, fine. I wouldn’t change it. I think you’re just changing it for the sake of just giving a job to somebody that’s bored or whatever. I’d leave it as it is as much as possible.” 

-Joe Canning is an Audi Galway ambassador

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Kevin O'Brien

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