Thursday 23 March 2017

Cats chase crown for King Henry

Henry Shefflin takes on Sean Og O hAilpin during Kilkenny's win over Cork on Sunday.
Henry Shefflin takes on Sean Og O hAilpin during Kilkenny's win over Cork on Sunday.

Kilkenny's so-called 'Drive for Five' may be regarded as a dirty phrase in Brian Cody's dressing-room, but even if that wasn't a prime motivation the Cats certainly have a new one now: To do it for Henry.

The devastating loss of hurling's equivalent of royalty, to what could yet be a career-ending injury to the cruciate ligament in his knee, will undoubtedly hit his team hard. However, it looks likely to give Cody's history-chasing side yet another incentive to drive on and clinch the five-in-a-row.

Cody's oft-repeated mantra is that everything Kilkenny do is "all about the team", but it is likely that they will make an exception now and secretly dedicate this year's All-Ireland campaign to the man their fans have understandably nicknamed 'King Henry'.

Former team-mate Charlie Carter summarised local feelings last night when he likened Shefflin's loss to that of JJ Delaney four years ago.

"Henry will still be a huge, instrumental part in the lead-up to the final and the day itself for Kilkenny," Carter stressed. "We saw back in 2006 when JJ Delaney missed the final that the players went out to try and win it for him, and that's the way it'll be for Henry."

The fact that Shefflin has remained so modest and self-effacing, despite crowning such a phenomenal team with his remarkable individual talent, makes the Ballyhale Shamrocks star particularly popular among his team-mates.

They are likely to take his enforced absence to their hearts and try to ensure that they provide him with some consolation in the form of an eighth All-Ireland senior medal. And even though he's sidelined, Shefflin, who is such a leader for the team, will undoubtedly still be able to play a huge part in the dressing-room.

Since making his Leinster senior debut against Laois in 1999, Shefflin has never missed a championship match and has never played under any other manager than Cody. He has won every honour in the game, including seven senior All-Ireland titles, nine All Stars and he swept the trio of hurling's Player of the Year awards in both 2002 and 2006.

He is the only player who has scored a goal in 12 consecutive senior championship campaigns -- and that included 2008, when he was just back after suffering a cruciate injury in the 2007 All-Ireland final that kept him out of the entire league season.

Just one game into Kilkenny's campaign this summer, Shefflin became hurling's all-time highest championship scorer when his 12 points against Dublin took his tally to 22 goals and 382 points (448 points), nine clear of his fellow Kilkenny legend Eddie Keher. He has since added another 1-7 against Galway and another point (a free) against the Rebels last weekend before he was forced off.

But apart from his scoring ability, he brings a wealth of other attributes to both club and county. His superb vision, his unselfishness, his gift for picking out team-mates with the perfect pass and the way he drifts in and out of positions to open up space for others make his value inestimable.

To succumb to a second cruciate injury in four years is particularly heartbreaking for the Ballyhale star. He will now be forced to watch from the sidelines as his team face either Waterford or Tipperary in the All-Ireland final on September 5. But there is no doubt that the Noresiders' management will try to harness Shefflin's heartache positively for himself and his team-mates.

demonstrated

And of all the teams in the country, there is arguably none so well equipped as Kilkenny to handle the loss of such a stellar player as Shefflin. That was demonstrated immediately after he went off last Sunday.

As the spiritual and physical leader of their attack, there were immediate fears that Shefflin's departure might expose a hitherto undiscovered fault line that Cork may expose. However, straight into the breach stepped full-forward Richie Power, whose 1-8 (1-2 from play) demonstrated that the Cats had a pretty useful understudy already on the pitch.

Power has long been tipped to reproduce his underage prowess at senior level, but only last weekend did he really deliver on the biggest of stages.

Demonstrating many of the skills that Shefflin can make look so easy with his understated style, Power was particularly strong in the air and took his chances from play and frees with similar ruthless efficiency.

However, one big worry for the Kilkenny management is that Shefflin's loss immediately throws an even bigger spotlight on Power, who has never previously had to shoulder such massive responsibility.

Whether he can now lead their attack with similar consistency and withstand the massive pressure of that expectation remains to be seen.

Surviving Shefflin's loss will also be made easier by Kilkenny's enviable strength on the bench. Shefflin's clubmate James 'Cha' Fitzpatrick has had to battle hard to regain a starting place this summer, which proves just how competitive it is for places.

The form shown by Eoin Larkin and Aidan Fogarty last weekend will also encourage management that they still have plenty of firepower. Michael Rice noticeably returned from injury to come off the bench last weekend and he is an obvious replacement for the No 11 shirt.

Another player who could help take up the slack left by Shefflin's unfortunate loss is Martin Comerford. Immediately after replacing him last Sunday, Comerford whipped over an inspirational score from a very tight space on the left wing to demonstrate that he was well up for the challenge.

Consistency has also been a problem for Comerford in recent seasons but, perhaps even more than Power, he has that capacity to ghost in and out of positions and open up space for others that Shefflin does so unobtrusively, but with such lethal effect.

There is no doubt that nobody in modern inter-county hurling can match the unique vision, skill and level-headed leadership that Shefflin has given to Kilkenny in the past 12 years, so he is an incalculable loss.

But their management will now throw down the challenge to his team-mates not to disappoint their leader when he is hurting most.

Irish Independent

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