King Henry will be back when he's needed most
HENRY Shefflin spent all of spring 2008 recuperating from a cruciate ligament injury sustained in the previous year's All-Ireland final against Limerick, but bloomed again in summer and autumn, scoring a total of 1-35 in four championship games as Kilkenny clinched the three-in-a-row.
He was similarly engaged with recuperation last spring, again watching all of Kilkenny's Allianz League campaign from the sidelines, as another cruciate operation tested his spirit and resolve. Shefflin was back for Kilkenny's championship opener in Wexford Park on June 11, caught in the middle of heavy jousts and jolts as the Wexford defence 'welcomed' him back to action.
He responded with trademark solidity, scoring 0-8 from frees and a point from open play and, equally importantly, proving that mind and limb were as agile as ever.
By September, he had had scored 1-32, Kilkenny were reinstated as All-Ireland champions and King Henry was on his way to a 10th All Star award.
So, while Kilkenny supporters -- and indeed, all fair-minded hurling fans -- will feel sympathy for Shefflin as he prepares for another lengthy spell in recovery mode, nobody doubts that come Saturday evening, June 23 next, Shefflin will be among the black-and-amber brigade as they emerge onto O'Moore Park, Portlaoise for the Leinster semi-final.
Shefflin has become so synonymous with Kilkenny's championship summers that it's difficult to envisage them without him. Indeed, life after him is a worrying thought for Kilkenny because however productive the conveyor belts may be, they don't deliver many Henry Shefflins.
And if anybody doubts his crucial importance to Kilkenny, they should reflect on the 2010 All-Ireland final against Tipperary when his attempt to persuade a damaged cruciate to allow him see out the five-in-a-row bid ended in the first quarter.
Kilkenny weren't to know it at the time, but their attempt at the record was fatally undermined even when Shefflin took the applause of a genuinely sympathetic crowd as he limped off.
His absence in the second half -- especially when Tipperary opened up a significant lead -- was sorely felt by Kilkenny, not just in terms of his scoring talents, but also as a leader whose problem-solving capacity was badly missed by his attacking colleagues.
They worked just as hard as if he were on the pitch -- perhaps even more diligently as they attempted to compensate for the loss -- but it lacked clarity and guile. They ran in straight lines right into the furnace which Tipperary had lit, whereas if Shefflin was on duty he would have been pointing, directing and decoying so cleverly that it might have been Tipp who were feeling the intense heat.
Just as Kilkenny might have won the five-in-a-row in 2010 if Shefflin had been around, they could well have lost without him this year. It was his instinctive thinking which helped set up the first goal after he jabbed a sideline cut to Eoin Larkin, took a return pass and fed Richie Hogan who offloaded to the Ballyhale Express that was Michael Fennelly.
Sideline striking is so good nowadays that most teams regard a cut as a point-scoring opportunity, but Shefflin spotted that the Tipperary defence weren't properly aligned so he took a chance on launching a goal search which ultimately proved fruitful when Fennelly whipped the ball into the Tipperary net.
That goal intensified Kilkenny's belief that they had reconnected with the unstoppable force which ferried them to the four-in-a-row in 2006-2009.
But then Shefflin has been at the heart of Kilkenny's thrill-seeking days for so long that it has come to be taken for granted.
How ironic that the greatest hurler and rugby player Ireland has ever seen are both heading into Christmas carrying shoulder injuries which will rule them out for all of next spring.
However, unlike Brian O'Driscoll who is likely to be fit for action as the rugby season tapers down, Shefflin will be getting back out just as the main hurling business gets underway.
Brian Cody has no doubt that he will be ready in plenty time for the championship, a sentiment shared (and hoped for) by the whole of Kilkenny. On past experiences, they needn't worry. However tough winter and spring may be, nobody does summer and autumn better than Henry Shefflin.