Published 28/08/2010 | 05:00
WHEN the greatest hurler in history embraced his opponent at the end of the 2004 All-Ireland final and then went to swop shirts with him, he was stopped in his tracks.
"Sorry Henry," apologised Sean Og O hAilpin, "but I have to keep this for a man in Limerick."
If Henry Shefflin didn't know then who Gerard Hartmann was, he has certainly got to know him intimately in the past 16 days.
The gift of the jersey was O hAilpin's way of thanking Hartmann for rebuilding his knee after a horrendous car crash in 2001 and they've remained firm friends since.
That framed No 7 Cork jersey now hangs in one of Hartmann's treatment rooms, probably not far from where Shefflin has been repeatedly driven through his own pain threshold in the past fortnight.
The University Arena in Castletroy, Limerick is an ultra-modern sports complex that includes the 50m swimming pool into which Wexford prodigy Grainne Murphy quietly slips at 5.20 most mornings.
Upstairs is Hartmann's International Sports Injury Clinic, which he moved to from Limerick's Patrick Street in May 2007.
His reception rooms house 'The Hartmann Collection', an extraordinarily rich museum of sporting memorabilia and tributes donated by his veritable 'who's who' of world-class sporting clients or friends, especially from track and field.
Paula Radcliffe, Sonia O'Sullivan and Kelly Holmes, sprinters like Colin Jackson and a plethora of African distance stars from Kenya's Moses Kiptanui to Ethiopia's current track queen Tirunesh Dibaba have all been treated by Hartmann.
Yet of all the ground-breaking recoveries that the world-renowned Irish physical therapist has pulled off for over 50 Olympic medallists and world champions, getting an amateur hurler through the All-Ireland final next Sunday, just four weeks after he tore a cruciate ligament, might yet be his greatest.
The cruciate is one of four ligaments that stabilise the knee, but by far the most critical.
For competitive athletes, a tear in it usually necessitates surgery and nowadays it takes just six to eight months to get back to competitive action afterwards.
But Henry Shefflin hasn't got eight months.
When his left knee buckled ominously against Galway on August 8 it was four weeks away from the All-Ireland final.
In normal circumstances he might have called time on his season, but there is nothing normal about Shefflin or these circumstances.
The Ballyhale legend is the physical and spiritual leader of a Kilkenny team chasing hurling immortality through a first five-in-a-row.
So, as soon as he went down Kilkenny's management sprang into emergency action.
Quick-thinking team doctor Tadgh Crowley arranged for Shefflin and Brian Hogan (shoulder injury) to be immediately whisked from Croke Park to the cryotherapy clinic in White's Hotel Wexford.
It is believed that cryotherapy in the first 30 minutes after an acute injury lowers the inflammation and speeds up the healing by 75pc.
Yes, Wexford was more than a half-hour away, but anything Kilkenny could do to try to minimise the damage was worth a shot.
With cruciate injuries there is little point in doing an MRI scan straight away because the amount of internal bleeding blurs the imagery, so Shefflin's knee was not scanned until Tuesday.
That afternoon, surgeon Tadhg O'Sullivan, the Munster expert who successfully operated on Shefflin's right cruciate in 2007, confirmed his worst fears.
Yet the player and Kilkenny wanted to explore his non-surgical options and contacted Hartmann, who has worked something of a miracle on cruciates before, not just O hAilpin's.
Five years ago, Munster out-half Ronan O'Gara suffered a grade two tear of his cruciate in a Celtic League match against Newport Gwent Dragons. The quarter-final of the Heineken Cup against Biarritz was only weeks away and immediately written off, but there was a Lions Tour to New Zealand fast approaching.
Surgery would have ruled O'Gara out of the Lions trip, but top knee specialist Ray Moran, brother of Kevin, has a close working relationship with Hartmann and consulted with him, and the Limerickman felt he could rehabilitate the Irish star in time -- without surgery.
Five weeks later, O'Gara was back training with Munster. In another two weeks, he not only played in Munster's Celtic Cup final against Llanelli but was 'Man of the Match', scoring 17 points, including an early try.
O'Gara's dramatically rapid recovery confirmed Hartmann's radical theory that if all the other ligaments in the knee are undamaged, intensive strengthening work can stabilise it enough to compensate for a damaged cruciate.
It was achieved through a combination of intense physio and exhausting strength and explosive plyometric exercises designed to reinforce every sinew around the knee.
Only the bodies of top-class athletes could cope with such an accelerated rehabilitation programme.
O'Gara himself described it as "murder, the hardest thing I ever had to do in my career."
To do it, Shefflin and fellow Kilkenny cruciate victim John Tennyson actually moved down to Limerick for the past two weeks, living in a house just off the UL campus that Hartmann's international clients regularly use.
Their intensive regime of two days' treatment, alternated with one day's rest, kicked in. If the players wanted to go home on their 'off' days, the County Board organised a driver to ferry them.
Last Monday night was Kilkenny's pre-All-Ireland press conference and manager Brian Cody was peppered with Shefflin questions.
Was it true he was getting treatment? Could he possibly play some part?
Cody kept it deliberately vague. "It's in the lap of the gods, we're talking miracles, we're trying to defy medical opinion here," he said.
Two nights later they did.
Kilkenny fans who habitually watch pre-All Ireland training gasped in disbelief when, at 6.47 last Wednesday, Shefflin ran out among his team-mates.
As word spread through the Marble City of the Cat's own hurling Lazarus, cars were abandoned and traffic chaos reigned around Nowlan Park as close to 8,000 fans swarmed in, their eyes on sticks.
There was no strapping on Henry's left knee yet he took a full part in the warm-up; hopping, jumping, twisting and turning without any apparent discomfort.
Then he actually lined out at centre-forward in the internal training match and got a few points.
Even a neutral observer like Cork's Donal O'Grady was gob-smacked. "You wouldn't think that he was injured watching him," he observed. "He did the drills and the stretches and then took part in the match. He didn't stand out in the game, but he got through it."
So, will Shefflin play in the All-Ireland final?
Kilkenny have their last 'heavy' training session today and Cody has indicated that players must come through its considerable rigours to be considered match fit.
Hartmann is still expected to treat Shefflin again mid-week and could yet work on him at the weekend also. Sources say he has been stunned by the hurler's physical ability, work-rate and tenacity.
Shefflin's swift return to training indicates that they have, jointly, already defied medical opinion. But right now even those closest to 'Operation Henry' don't know yet whether or not he will be ready for the white-hot heat of an All-Ireland decider.
Trying to recover this way is an unprecedented race against time and a massive gamble.
But it is one, apparently, that Shefflin (31) was willing to risk, so desperate was he to avoid another cruciate surgery and the long rehabilitation that entails.
The Kilkenny management are unlikely to play him unless they are 100pc convinced he is risk free and fully ready.
And, given Hartmann's exacting standards, he would only deem 'Operation Henry' a success if Kilkenny's hurling king gives another of his trademark masterclasses in the All-Ireland final that everyone expected him to miss.