Purple Reign

THERE was a period in the early noughties when the most famous left-corner-back in hurling was Galway’s Ollie Canning. He won three All-Star awards, but it should have been at least four, possibly five, as the Portumna speedster won nationwide renown for his deeds in snuffing out the threat of one great corner-forward after another.

Pace was his hallmark but he was also a consummate stickman; Ollie would attack the ball with absolute confidence, sure that his first touch would win him possession, leaving the unfortunate forward trailing in his slipstream. And then, two years ago, still only 29, at the height of his powers, he turned his back on it all and walked away from inter-county hurling. At about the same time, Joe Canning was coming. In his final year as a minor Joe was going for three-in-a-row All-Ireland titles with Galway, and already, such was his rapidly growing reputation, he was invited onto the senior panel. He didn’t take up the offer that year, didn’t take it up either last year but starred for the Galway U21s as they won another All-Ireland title, starred also for Portumna as they won their second All-Ireland club title in three years in March of this year.

This season, however, good news for hurling supporters generally, for Galway fans particularly. At the ripe old age of 19 Joe decided that he was ready to try and tackle senior level, and has already proved he is as he starred for the Tribesmen in the National League semi-final and final. This season also Ollie has recanted; refreshed, rejuvenated after his one-year hiatus, he now feels ready to rejoin the inter-county fray and three weeks ago, following Portumna’s All-Ireland win, he got back into harness. No competitive match just yet, Antrim and Casement Park - Galway’s first championship outing — still on the middle horizon, but even after just one year away Ollie has already noted some changes.

“The biggest thing is the new faces, a lot of new lads coming through. I know all the guys from club hurling and from watching them playing at underage with Galway, but I haven’t played with them before. I’m looking forward to that.”

One of those new faces is of course Joe, but the irony is that while Ollie is the one with all the years of experience at this level, the younger brother is actually the one who seems to be the more comfortable in the changed environment. “I don’t really see much difference,” says Joe, of the step-up to the senior set-up. “I’ve hurled with most of the guys in there. There’s 16 of last year’s U21 panel training with the seniors, lads I’ve hurled with through the last few years, I’ve hurled with them in Fitzgibbon, and I’d know them through club as well. I know the training is a lot tougher but it’s still the same kind of atmosphere.”

The actual matches, however, now there’s the difference. “Yes, a lot tougher and a lot faster than either minor or U21, and it doesn’t compare at all with club hurling — and that’s only the league, that’s all I’ve experienced so far. Some of the guys were saying the league final was almost championship level but I still won’t know until I actually play championship. Obviously it’s going to be a whole new ball game for me but I’ll just to try to improve myself enough to meet that challenge.”

They’re an interesting pair. During his previous time with Galway, Ollie was one of those rare GAA players who was always approachable for an interview, had none of these illogical fears, hang-ups or superstitions about appearing in print before the big day. The interview was simply par for the inter-county course. Ollie would say what he had to say, and he was a good interviewee, articulate, intelligent, open; then he would go out on the Sunday and hurl.

Though over 12 years younger, just coming onto the big stage, Joe is very much the same. There is an assuredness that both have, a true awareness — honestly modest, without even approaching arrogance — of their own elevated place in hurling, but a true awareness also of hurling’s place in their own lives. That was why Joe choose not to accept the invitation last year or the year before to join the senior panel, though most youngsters would probably have leaped at the opportunity; then only 18, he was mature enough, intelligent enough, and sure enough to make his own decision, a decision in which he looked at the bigger picture.

“I decided a year ago,” he said this time last year. “I’ve been hurling for the last three or four years non-stop, I wanted to take a break for a while, live a teenager’s life. I’m only gone 18 since last October, so it’ll be another while yet. I’ve won two U16’s with the county, won two minor All-Irelands, lost the one last year; that’s five years solid hurling at underage, while I’m just growing up. That could take its toll in another few years; obviously at the moment it hasn’t but I’m looking forward, I want to keep playing for as long as I possibly can.”

As for the fact that Galway could have won the All-Ireland senior title last year, well, it was all factored into his thinking. “That’s a chance I’ll have to take, but that’s my decision on it.” All of that showed massive maturity, superb self-awareness to match the self-assurance. All he was doing, however, was following his nature, because it was exactly the same thinking pattern that governed Ollie’s decision to step away, a decision about which he has absolutely no regrets. “It’s funny but I was probably out of the country four or five times during the year out which would have been impossible before — weekend breaks in Europe, in the States, different things like that. I was able to make decisions for myself without having to consider things like training sessions, matches; something on at the weekend, ‘Jesus I’m sorry, I can’t go, we have a match’ — there was none of that. It was living life like a normal person.”

They’re a big family, the Cannings, a tight family, several brothers on the team that made the breakthrough with Portumna a few years ago. That balanced attitude to life, and to hurling’s place in life, is a trait they all share. “We enjoy the game, we love the game,” Ollie explains. “But you win some, you lose some, and that’s life. We [Galway] lost the 2001 All-Ireland final, we lost the 2005 All-Ireland final, but that’s the way the cookie crumbled, there’s nothing you can do about it after the fact.”

There are others who have been in that same situation who spend the rest of their lives in mourning, the what-ifs of that fateful day a constant intrusion. Not Ollie. “There’s a lot of other stuff going on in life, a lot worse situations than losing a hurling match. You feel bad about it for a certain time afterwards but you have to get up and get on with it, life doesn’t stop because you’ve lost a game.”

And so it was that Ollie took his time out, so it was that Joe took his time about coming in. For neither of them was it a big deal at the time, though a big deal was made of it; for neither of them is it a big deal now.

The thing is though, it is a big deal. Last year, in Ger Loughnane’s first season in charge, Galway came within 10 minutes of beating Kilkenny in a fiercely contested All-Ireland semi-final; with Ollie and Joe now in the fold, they will surely be a better team this year. There are question marks, of course; can Ollie pick up where he left off? Can Joe deliver on that massive underage promise? On the former, a series of superb defensive performances from Ollie for Portumna on their march to All-Ireland success would suggest yes. On the latter, well, there isn’t a single sane hurling expert who would bet against it. Anyone who has seen Joe with club, college or county for the past four years or more, knows this kid is truly special. Within the family, the signs were there a lot earlier. “Joe was playing U10 at about six or seven, which is a big [age] difference at that age, but I remember looking at him back then and I knew, he had a bit extra. At seven and eight he was standing out at U10, and he progressed from that. Even before that though we could see it; from the time he could walk he’d be outside in the lawn with a hurley and a ball. We had a sheepdog, Ross — still alive, would you believe — and Joe would belt the ball away, into the field across the road; Ross would cross the road, jump the ditch, and bring the ball back to him.

“Even at five or six years of age he could hit the ball from his hands, with left and right, and he’d be out there for hours, hitting the ball for the dog to bring back, and that went on for years and years. We never praised him too much about it, but he got plenty of encouragement and he stuck to it. But it’s funny how things continue. Ivan [another brother, Portumna keeper] has a little lad now, Andrew, he’s not even two yet, but all he wants is the hurley. It’s not that he’s being pushed into it, any more than Joe was pushed into it, it’s just from being there, you grow up with it.”

Joe Canning is grown up now, all 6’2” of him, powerful frame, stark contrast to the sleek greyhound build of brother Ollie. Their attitude, however, is the same, and it’s the right attitude, it’s a winning attitude.

The game is richer for their presence.

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