Cannon's survival instinct may decide very modern duel

By Tim Glover
Friday 21 November 2003 01:00

Time was when hookers were out-and-out specialists, players who were almost born to appear in the middle of the front row, reliably heel the ball back from the feed of their scrum-half, generally keep their heads down and mind their own business. All that, of course, has changed.

The modern trend is for hookers to be converted from back-row forwards. Steve Thompson, the England No 2, successfully made the transition, encouraged by Ian McGeechan when the Scotsman was coaching Northampton. Tomorrow, Thompson goes head-to-head with Brendan Cannon, the Australian hooker who also reinvented himself. As a teenager he appeared in the back row for the Australian Under-19 side and that was 11 years ago.

Cannon, fractionally shorter than Thompson but no lighter, had his own McGeechan in the former Queensland coach, John Connolly, now coach of Bath. "We decided he couldn't continue as a No 8 and we turned him into a hooker when he was 20," Connolly said. "And then the car crash set him back a year."

Nobody can write about Cannon without mentioning the smash from which, by all accounts, he was lucky to survive. In 1993 he bought a car and his father approved of the choice, describing it as a safe vehicle. Near a bridge in Brisbane a vehicle struck the back of Cannon's car and diverted it into an oncoming lorry. "The shattered windscreen scarred his whole body," Connolly said. "Brendan did exceptionally well to come back from that."

Cannon was trapped in the wreckage for an hour as a rescue crew cut him from the car.

"It was no fun, not being able to move and have all this attention," he said. "They gave me a blood transfusion. I never thought I would die, but they told me later they hadn't given me much of a chance. Apparently the longer you're trapped, the less chance you have because of the blood loss and the shock. I'm very lucky considering everything else that could have happened because the car was totalled. I wondered how on earth I could have survived."

Cannon needed 50 stitches, his forehead disfigured by a scar that Al Capone would have envied. Cannon's right elbow, right hip and right knee were also seriously damaged. He was in rehabilitation for three months."

Before the 1993 season had ended, Cannon was playing rugby again, but not on the grand stage and few expected him to make the big time. The following year he had a two-month spell in Cardiff with the former Wallaby assistant coach, Alex Evans - he later coached Wales in the 1995 World Cup in South Africa - and when he returned home he was selected by Queensland to tour Argentina.

Here Cannon is invariably described as an understudy to Russell Crowe in that he bears a resemblance to the actor. In his career the hooker was for a long time the number two to Michael Foley, not only in Queensland but Australia.

When the Wallabies won the World Cup in 1999 they had Foley, who is now working with Connolly at Bath, Phil Kearns and Jeremy Paul. Cannon got a Super 12 contract with the New South Wales Waratahs and when the Lions toured Australia in 2001 he won his first cap, making his debut in the second test in Melbourne.

"He's a very good leader and a very tough customer indeed," Connolly said. "Brendan's become an influential member of the Australian pack and team. He's had to work very hard for his success. It will be a fascinating contest between him and Thompson. Both are outstanding around the field and both, coincidentally, have very flat throws into the line-out. As scrummagers it would be hard to say who was the stronger. You are talking about two very good players."

Cannon finding Justin Harrison in the line-out or carrying the ball at every opportunity and Thompson finding Martin Johnson and doing likewise. The modern hooker carries a large responsibility.

Last year Cannon was not regarded by the Wallabies coach, Eddie Jones, as the first choice, but he excelled during the last Tri-Nations series and he has been excelling in Australia's bid to become the first country to retain the World Cup.

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