THE 'will he or won't he?' saga will continue for another two months at least, but yesterday confirmed one long-proven truism when it comes to Henry Shefflin ... form is temporary but class is forever.
On a chilly December afternoon in Portlaoise, Ballyhale Shamrocks were pushed to the brink of the abyss by Kilcormac-Killoughey before emerging after extra-time - shaken and stirred - to claim a record eighth AIB Leinster club senior hurling title.
How close did they come to a shock defeat? This close: Ciaran Slevin stood over a free on his own '65' at the end of normal time, two signalled additional minutes having morphed into a third, knowing that one monster strike would claim a famous victory for the 2012 provincial champions.
But Slevin had endured a horror show second half from placed balls - missing four on the bounce before ceding duties to Cillian Kiely, then recovering to land a 60th minute equaliser. This last effort was the most difficult of all, and he came up short. Cue extra-time, where it was all about a belated exhibition of Ballyhale class, best exemplified by the King himself.
In a week marked by JJ Delaney's surprising retirement, Shefflin did more than anyone in extra-time to ensure there will be no such imminent announcements from himself. Not now ... and maybe not in February or March either, depending on whether Ballyhale go all the way.
The ten-time All-Ireland winner had endured an up-and-down first hour. He was well shackled by Ger Healion in the first half while, in a white-knuckle climax, two crossfield passes led to a couple of turnovers, one of which ended in Slevin's equalising free.
Yet, minutes earlier, a man who turns 36 next month had struck a superb touchline point to edge the Shamrocks ahead. Then, in extra-time, Shefflin nailed two further brilliant scores from a similar position, hogging the whitewash. To cap it all, he followed up with a sublime pass pinged into James Fitzpatrick, leaving 'Cha' with the simplest of points to edge them five up against a brave Kilcormac outfit who now appeared out on their feet.
"Ah sure look, Henry is a serious hurler," waxed his manager, Andy Moloney. "Anyone that would write him off, or anyone that is mad to retire him, is mad really.
"We had him in at full-forward, we had him at centre-forward, and I suppose he wasn't really in the game. Then we brought him to wing-forward - and it suited him ... some of the points he got there in extra-time were top drawer. That one over his head, you wouldn't get it in the summer."
Colin Fennelly, curiously held scoreless despite some trademark surging bursts, warmed to the same theme. "In the second half he got a point down along the sideline the same as the game against Galway (last June) - it was an unbelievable point. Then in extra-time he came on with one over the shoulder on the sideline. Just absolutely amazing to watch ... he's the lead man in our team and we follow him."
In the first half, and much of the second, it was TJ Reid carrying the baton but few enough of his illustrious colleagues were at the same pitch of intensity.
Instead, much of the tempo was being dictated by the three-in-a-row Offaly kingpins, roared on by their vocal fans. Within a minute they had nailed a brace of points from Kiely and James Gorman and, though a Reid-inspired Ballyhale battled back to lead by 0-7 to 0-6 at the midpoint, they were struggling to cope with Kilcormac's physicality in the tackle and ferocious pursuit of breaking ball.
Moloney described it as a "good wake-up call" for his decorated cast. "They're not going to walk over teams, and sometimes some of the hype or some of the media attention probably can get into your heads. And I think, maybe today, for about 20-25 minutes, that was the case," he concluded.
Early in the second half they endured another dose of smelling salts: Gorman ghosted onto a long ball only to see his initial effort parried by 'keeper Richie Reid, Peter Geraghty failed to connect cleanly on the rebound but eventually Dan Currams pounced for a 34th minute goal that edged them one point clear.
Back came Ballyhale with four on the spin - three Reid frees and a Mark Aylward score - during the very period when Slevin was suffering his sudden bout of the free-taking 'yips'.
His manager refused to apportion blame. "To be fair to Ciaran Slevin, he has won more matches than I care to remember for us," said Danny Owens. "It's coming in a bad week (for him). He just buried his granny yesterday. Ciaran Slevin has been our hero so many times that I've lost count."
Kilcormac rallied in the fourth quarter to briefly lead, leaving Owens "immensely proud" of his charges. He also lamented the injury-enforced exit of Ger Healion, his full-back powerhouse, as "an awful loss to us going into extra-time".
Not even a double-save from Conor Slevin, denying Colin Fennelly and then Brian Cody as the latter dithered over a rebound, could reignite them.
"An absolutely amazing year," Fennelly gushed. "Between the four wins with Kilkenny, the county final, the Leinster final, it's been the best year of my life by far with hurling ... and I can't wait to enjoy it."