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Final fantasy now reality for Kilkenny

BY now it has become a Friday night ritual. At nine o'clock tonight, Brian Cody and his selectors will place their 15 cards on the table and only then will the public learn the identity of the Kilkenny team for Sunday's date with destiny.

Cody team announcements invariably come late in the week, whetting the appetite even more. This time, however, conjecture has risen to fever pitch and the Kilkenny county board website can expect an avalanche of 'hits' at a time when the nation is usually tuning into Anne Doyle or else heading for the pub.

All of which, to the outside observer, might seem strange. After all, this is the same Kilkenny that has won 21 straight championship matches and is 70 minutes from the five-in-a-row.

As the old mantra goes, if it ain't broke why fix it? Especially when your average winning margin this summer is over 12 points per game.

However, this has not been your average All-Ireland build-up for Kilkenny. At times, the talk has been more Holby City than hurling; more MASH than clash of the ash.

Theirs has been a remarkable run of injury misfortune. Only one thing has been more remarkable -- in the case of two stricken stars, Henry Shefflin and John Tennyson, their 'miraculous' recoveries.

Both players suffered torn cruciate ligaments either before or during the All-Ireland semi-final. Both now look poised to actually start this Sunday's final against Tipperary.

To the outsider, this is all very surreal -- and hard to reconcile with all previous preconceptions about this supposedly season-ending knee injury.

But a combination of people have contrived to make it possible: the expertise of physical therapist Ger Hartmann in Limerick; the unwavering determination of the two players involved; the ambition of Kilkenny officials/management to examine all available options, not just the first one. All these people and one special circumstance: the tantalising prospect of five-in-a-row.

So, will King Henry be named up front tonight? In almost all certainty, yes -- in which case Shefflin's record of never missing a championship game since his debut in 1999 will be preserved, against all August odds.

And Tennyson? Again, the local grapevine suggests he will be restored to centre-back in the absence of the luckless Brian Hogan -- another player to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous injury misfortune. Oh, don't get us started ...

KILKENNY'S TALE OF TRAUMA

IF Glenn Hoddle was reincarnated as Cyril Farrell on The Sunday Game, he'd probably suggest that the entire Kilkenny squad are now paying for their sins in a previous life, for sure, as such.

Long before the miracle of the two cruciates, Michael Rice was sidelined with a hand injury, reducing the All Star midfielder to a cameo forward role against Cork last month.

Tennyson had damaged his knee in training for the semi-final. Brian Hogan entered the Cork clash under one injury cloud (involving his hand) and then quickly exited it under another (his shoulder).

Then, later in that first half, Shefflin crumpled in a heap having landed awkwardly on his left knee. He was able to walk off Croke Park but, two days later, scans confirmed the worst: the second cruciate injury of his career.

"I think the whole place was in mourning," remarked Shefflin's club and county colleague, Michael Fennelly, at the Kilkenny press night. "You'd swear he was dying or something, coming up to the All-Ireland. But he'll take it on the chin."

Fennelly was speaking two days before 8,000 true believers bore witness to the second coming of Shefflin and Tennyson. More anon.

The injury scares didn't end with that costly Cork romp. At a club match the following weekend, the unstoppable force that is Tommy Walsh met the immovable object that is Jackie Tyrrell. Walsh's shoulder came off worst in the collision. Now the 2009 Hurler of the Year was an All-Ireland doubt too.

"Any time your phone rings or beeps you're thinking, 'Is this another injury?'" Tyrrell admitted last week. "It was just one of those things. He (Walsh) is a tough cookie ... I texted him that night and he said it was his own fault."

Soon after, the sight of Richie Power on crutches with an ankle problem spread further panic among the Black-and-Amber faithful, who have watched Power blossom this summer, his attacking influence now second only to Shefflin's.

As the final beckons, however, there is less reason for panic. Walsh and Power resumed full training on Wednesday of last week -- at the now-famous Nowlan Park session which marked the return of Shefflin and Tennyson.

Of the two returnees, Tennyson looked rustier and less confident. Yet in last Saturday's practice match -- effectively a final trial -- the defender was moving with more of his old confidence and fluency. His timing was impeccable: Brian Hogan had broken a finger the previous Wednesday and was now out of the final, leaving a No6 jersey to be filled.

CODY'S BIG CALLS

And so we come to tonight's big announcement. Here's the interesting bit: if the 'A' team doesn't change from last weekend, Tennyson will be centre-back, Shefflin centre-forward, with Michael Rice recalled at wing-forward and skipper TJ Reid moving to the right corner. And the big loser? Eddie Brennan who, like Henry, is seeking to win his eighth All-Ireland medal on the pitch this weekend.

Needless to say, there is no guarantee this will be the actual team: Cody is not averse to pulling rabbits from his Friday night hat. However, it seems safe to speculate that three candidates (Brennan, Reid and Rice) are vying for two forward slots with the other four positions retained by Shefflin, Eoin Larkin, Power and Aidan Fogarty.

The in-form Michael Fennelly will start at midfield, almost certainly alongside former All Star Cha Fitzpatrick -- the clubmates were successfully reunited against Cork and there seems no appetite for breaking them up.

Defence will be as you were -- apart from centre-back, of course, where Hogan is ruled out. That loyal and versatile servant, James Ryall, proved an able deputy against Cork but may be held in reserve once more, along with Paddy Hogan.

Instead, Tennyson looks poised to start. He made a huge impression coming off the bench against Galway in July and could have started against Cork but for his knee injury. Now, local speculation suggests he will play because (a) he has proven his fitness and (b) given the apparent risk of recurrence, it makes more sense to start Tennyson than bring him on and possibly end up wasting two substitutions.

The same logic would apply to Shefflin. Here's another reason: Henry's record for inflicting knockout blows in the early All-Ireland exchanges. Speaking of which, Brennan has struggled this summer but perhaps his goalscoring knack in the biggest games might swing the management vote. We'll find out tonight, either way. Likewise, we'll learn if team captain TJ Reid holds on. This could have intriguing ramifications, given our understanding of an agreement between Ballyhale Shamrocks and the county board that whoever leads out the team on Sunday will lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup in the event of a Kilkenny victory.

The next obvious option? None other than Henry Shefflin!


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