Vincent Hogan: James Stephens' thunderous rivalry with Ballyhale doesn't boil down to 'Henry v Jackie' -- it defines all that's great about Kilkenny hurling
Published 22/10/2011 | 05:00
Niall Rigney sighs with an outsider's chuckle at how Kilkenny hurling gets painted into miracles of simplification. His first year in charge of James Stephens has pitched the city club into another county final with Ballyhale Shamrocks, their third in four seasons.
The popular shorthand for the rivalry seems to have become 'Jackie Tyrrell against Henry Shefflin.' Two great magistrates of Kilkenny hurling back to go toe-to-toe.
But for Rigney, a Laois man, the separation of reality from cartoon began the moment he walked through the Larchfield gates.
"Is it a myth what's being said about Brian Cody and his training?" he asks, laughing. "Jackie seemingly is just let loose and everyone else runs out of the way. Look, those lads hurl very very hard and that's the way Kilkenny hurl too.
"But does it ever get out of hand? No. That to me is what makes it so good, the fact that's it's so physical. They go right to the line and that's the way it is. But I don't think they step over the line."
Shefflin's unique place in the game was reaffirmed with an unprecedented 10th All Star award in Dublin last night, yet he knows that -- at Nowlan Park tomorrow -- reputation will offer all the protection of a paper hat in an earthquake.
Even Cody, perhaps his greatest champion, will sit resolutely in the opposite corner. The Kilkenny manager's two sons, Donnacha and Diarmuid, are on duty for 'The Village.' Any electricity charging on the October chill won't be diluted one iota by the proximity of old friends.
On the James Stephens' website this week, assorted YouTube segments of the '09 county final were filed under the tag, 'Popular.' Ballyhale won that contest by a goal, but the tone of their opponents' reminiscence suggests a wound that hasn't quite healed.
The caption beneath a picture of The Village team from that final references "some strange decisions by match officials." Underneath, in bold print, the visitor is invited to witness an assortment of prime exhibits, guided by questions like, "Which were foul play?" and "Who got the free?"
One sequence captures Shefflin catching a ball on the right wing and tangling with Tyrrell. Henry's left hand, attempting to push his Kilkenny team-mate away, goes into Jackie's faceguard. The helmet lifts and is left perching on the top of Tyrrell's head like he's a Queen's Guard on duty at Buckingham Palace. Shefflin is away, but the whistle sounds. Free in to Ballyhale.
Jackie lifts the helmet off his head and waves it indignantly at the referee. His facial expression doesn't require translation.
Ballyhale have not lost a county final since '05, when The Village, as All-Ireland champions, became the first team to successfully defend the Kilkenny title in 17 years. A notable footnote to that day was their achievement, through an assortment of markers, in holding Shefflin scoreless from play.
Henry swept down the dressing-room tunnel immediately afterwards, choosing not to stay out for the victory speech of his county team-mate, Peter Barry.
He wouldn't have known it at the time, but that day was to be the portent for a spell of remarkable Ballyhale dominance. They were uniquely chasing a fifth consecutive senior crown (mirroring the county's pursuit) when unseated by O'Loughlin Gaels in last year's semi-final.
So, this is Ballyhale's fifth final in six seasons and, with it, comes a palpable weight of public presumption.
Rigney illustrates it by pointing out how, even before their semi-final victory two weeks ago, the Shamrocks were being quoted at penal odds of 6/4 to be crowned All-Ireland champions next March. The best available Village price was 22/1.
"That in itself tells a story," suggests the Portlaoise man.
And it's one that hasn't escaped the attention of Ballyhale manager, Michael Fennelly Snr. "That's the one thing we're afraid of, that it might get to the players," he says.
"We have to try and keep that away from their minds, but it's not easy. We did go 12 points up the last day (against O'Loughlins) three times and yet it came back to a goal. Which you'd have to question."
Maybe no man is more emblematic of the competitive integrity coursing through Kilkenny hurling today than the remarkable Shefflin, now fully operational again after a second cruciate operation in three years. Throughout the county, it is felt that he is moving better than he was in September, when winning his eighth All-Ireland medal.
The highest scorer in championship history and the only man to play every single championship game during Cody's tenure, he will be 33 in January, yet shows no hint of a drift towards a sedentary life.
Having missed the National League, none of Kilkenny's championship opponents were inclined to spare him physically this year, yet Shefflin always stepped up to the plate. A virtue that has become his signature.
No one doubts that Tyrrell will be immensely physical tomorrow and no one doubts that Henry will see that challenge as little more than the standard repertoire of serious hurling.
Rigney believes it is this stoic acceptance of intensity that distinguishes Kilkenny hurling from the rest.
"There's a real healthy rivalry to it," he stresses. "There's a great respect for each other, even though it's physical. And that's a massive thing. There's real honest skill, real honest discipline, real honest work-rate. It's just competitive all year through. And that's the big thing, I think. The competitiveness.
"Look at some other counties and they're cutting the s**t out of each other in club matches and then there's a hatred when the lads go out and are supposed to play for each other at county level.
"That's the opposite to what's going on in Kilkenny. There's a real healthy rivalry -- tough, hard, honest hurling. And it never spills over, no matter what. It never gets out of hand. That's the great thing about it.
"I mean both teams will be mad to win this game, make no mistake. In some counties, that passion gets out of hand, but it doesn't in Kilkenny. That 'them and us' type of thing just doesn't surface."
Shefflin's storied ability to weather a physical storm is endlessly referenced by his experience in the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final against Galway. That day, Gregory Kennedy got under his skin by pulling Henry's shirt and offering a relentless, on-pitch commentary.
Shefflin would later recall how Kennedy openly chuckled when they were both booked. Time would grant him the education of seeing how his opponent had won their battle comfortably. And he can laugh about it now with the Galwayman.
In 2003, Henry told this writer: "I acted like a child. I got frustrated, I got irritated. People have to be willing to get hurt, to take the rattle."
Tyrrell will have been considered unlucky by many not make this year's All Star selection, given his Man of the Match posting on a hitherto rampant Lar Corbett in the All-Ireland final.
At county level, he has become the prototype of the modern corner-back. Yet, he usually plays centre-back for The Village, albeit lining out at full-back on Colin Fennelly when they met Ballyhale some months back in the league.
Henry did not play in that game, but, tomorrow, he will have his customary licence to roam. And Jackie, it is assumed, will have consular clearance to follow.
Michael Fennelly Snr finds himself wondering aloud if the Kilkenny public fully appreciates the investment of time and energy required for men to hurl at a level the county has come to see as everyday.
"These boys have a lot of miles on the clock," he says of his own Ballyhale charges. "They're there six years on the trot, pushing hard to win county championships. That takes its toll, because it's hard to keep at that level.
"You win an All-Ireland with Kilkenny and then you have to step up to that bar again, almost straight away. It's not easy. You know these guys have other problems in their lives too. They're going to college, maybe getting married or going out with girls. At the end of the day, they're only human.
"Maybe people take them for granted. They see Kilkenny beating Tipperary, but that takes some commitment and work. The social life is out the window. And success adds its own problems as well, I suppose, because everyone likes to see the winners toppled. That's just the way sport works."
Recently, Ballyhale had Oisin McConville down to speak to them. He talked of Crossmaglen's remarkable recent dominance of Armagh football and the difficulties encountered in trying to maintain standards within an environment of unrelenting expectation.
Much of what McConville said bore a resonance they could relate to in Ballyhale.
They are strong favourites to regain the county title now, given the presence of county stars like Shefflin, 'Cha' Fitzpatrick, TJ Reid and the Fennellys, Michael and Colin, in their armoury.
The Village, it is presumed, will require epic performances from Tyrrell and Eoin Larkin to have a hope of winning.
Just this week, Cody half-jokingly enquired of a local media acquaintance: "Do you know of anyone giving us a chance?" Rigney admits that, within the club, a feeling persists that The Village might have been hard done by in that '09 final.
"Seemingly so," he acknowledges, "but, in fairness to the players, there's no talk of it whatsoever in the dressing-room. There's no talk of revenge, no mention of that bulls**t word that people sometimes use.
"Look, Shamrocks are a fantastic team and we just have to try and curtail their threat, to play to the maximum of our ability and maybe hope they might have a bit of an off-day. Will it happen? I don't know.
"But, if you want to improve yourself as a player, you've got to play against the best. Stand up and take them on. Look, we started training this year on February 20 with the hope of getting to the county final. But just to get to it? Not a chance. We're in it to win it.
"We can't focus on what Henry's going to do. We know what Henry's going to do. Likewise TJ or Mick Fennelly or any of those players. We have to concentrate on ourselves.
"Hopefully, with a few minutes to go, we're in there with a shout. If we are, by God, we'll give it a go from there."