Four modern forward greats of hurling appraised and praised
When Glen Rovers in Cork compiled their club history in the 1970s, they asked Christy Ring to write an article about the greatest players he had seen. They also asked Ring to pick a team illuminated with those greatest players.
Ring refused. He didn't want to offend anyone, so he wrote a different piece, which concluded with the following lines: "Let nobody say the best hurlers belong to the past. They are with us now and better yet to come."
Great players have emerged down through the intervening generations. Yet not even Ring could have foreseen that one unique crop of great forwards could be harvested from the same crop.
Twelve years ago, in the space of 13 days, four of the greatest forwards of the modern era stepped into the championship arena for the first time: Joe Canning, Seamus Callanan, TJ Reid, and Patrick Horgan.
Twelve years on, the numbers back up their brilliance; all four are in the top seven championship scorers in history, all of whom are ahead of Ring, who sits eighth. Players now may play more games, especially in the qualifier and round-robin era, but none of the four have still played as many championship matches as Ring.
Henry Shefflin sits at the top of the list of highest championship scorers in history, but Canning should be top of that pile by the time he's finished. Callanan is the highest championship scorer from play in history but Canning also has that target in his sights. And similar to Reid and Horgan, Canning and Callanan are still lighting up the hurling world with their class and genius.
Ring was certainly right all those years ago. The best players belong to the past. And they certainly belong to the present.
Joe Canning (Galway)
Before he had even played a single senior inter-county match, no other player triggered as much debate as to their anticipated ascension to senior level than Canning. An underage protégé, Canning initially made his name with Portumna; in their ten-game run to the 2006 All-Ireland title, when Canning was only 17, he bagged 12-82. When Canning finally made his championship debut in 2008, everyone could soon see what all the fuss was about – he hit 2-12 against Cork that summer.
In the early part of Canning's career his mercurial talent and sometimes outlandish performances cultivated Galway's dependence on him. That was always bound to invite pressure and when Galway didn't always deliver, a disproportionate responsibility for their failure often alighted on Canning.
Yet as Galway evolved, and better forwards emerged around Canning, the framework of the Galway attack became more stable than at any time in Canning's career. And as Canning's game evolved, his standards soared to new levels.
For most of his career, it had been hard to conceive a player of Canning's lavish talent finishing his inter county career without an All-Ireland. Yet that fear persisted until Canning finally extinguished it in 2017.
Hurler of the Year that season, it could be argued that Canning deserved the award more in 2018, when he was arguably more productive.
TJ Reid (Kilkenny)
The wonder of Reid's journey into the elite stratosphere is that it took so long for him to take off. The first half of Reid's career was mired in such frustration that he had decided to walk away in the middle of the 2012 championship. Shefflin convinced him otherwise and Reid finished that season with his first All-Star.
Reid's numbers in the meantime do full justice to his excellence. Despite not being a regular starter for the first six years of his career, and being injured for most of 2013, Reid has still managed to become the sixth highest championship scorer in history. Despite only assuming the primary free-taking duties since 2014, Reid has managed to edge ahead of Keher and Tipperary's Eoin Kelly to become hurling's 4th deadliest placed-ball marksman.
By the time Shefflin retired in early 2015, Reid had already been anointed as the leader of the attack. As more and more great Kilkenny players departed the stage, Reid picked up the mantle of responsibility, fully understanding the imperative at hand. In the flux, Kilkenny needed Reid to be more constant, even better, than ever. And he has been.
Reid was top scorer in last year's championship with 98 points but one of the greatest tributes to Reid now is how much of an assists machine he has become; in the 2019 championship, Reid had 47 assisted shots, with assists for 27 points.
Seamus Callanan (Tipperary)
When Callanan scored his goal against Laois last July, he reached a unique milestone by surpassing Shefflin to become the highest scorer from play in championship history. Callanan's scoring rate is even more impressive considering he has played 17 less championship matches than Shefflin, and that some of those games were substitute appearances.
Callanan went supernova last summer, scoring 41 points from 36 shots from play. Those numbers were bumped up from Callanan's incredible goalscoring rate – he nailed 8-17 from play in the championship from those 36 shots.
On the list of top ten highest scoring players from play in history, only Nicky Rackard has a higher average than Callanan. Rackard is also the only player on that list to have scored more goals from play than Callanan.
The triumph for Callanan is all the greater again considering that his career looked to be in crisis in the middle part of it. After he was substituted in the 2010 qualifiers against Wexford, Callanan saw out just two of Tipperary's next 16 championship matches.
Eamon O'Shea resurrected Callanan's career and Callanan has more than reciprocated that trust ever since. Runner up for Hurler-of-the-Year for three successive seasons between 2014-'16, Callanan finally – and fittingly – won the award last season.
Patrick Horgan (Cork)
One of the most incredible statistics in last year's championship was for one player to score 3-10 in one game and still end up on the losing team. Then again, Patrick Horgan's colossal haul against Kilkenny in the 2019 All-Ireland quarter-final wasn't that much of a surprise – Horgan averaged 13.83 points per game last summer.
Horgan accumulated 34 points (the total taken from goals as well as points) from 34 shots in the 2019 championship. Now the 3rd highest championship scorer of all time, Horgan scored more than anyone else in the last decade from placed balls (19-392), but his numbers also underline just how prolific Horgan was from play over the last ten years; he nailed 13-117 (156 points) in that time.
Callanan was the leading scorer from play during the last decade with 30-90 (180 points) but Horgan is second in that list. As another comparison, Horgan scored 15 points more from play than Canning, and 41 more points than Reid, over the last ten seasons.
The one thing that Horgan doesn't have, and all of those other three great players mentioned above do, is that elusive All-Ireland senior medal. Yet nobody disputes Horgan's brilliance as he manically pursues that quest for a coveted Celtic Cross.