NOEL HICKEY must wonder how he has escaped unscathed. The Kilkenny hurling camp has resembled a casualty ward in recent weeks and yet their full-back has somehow avoided whatever five-in-a-row curse is hovering in the ether above Nowlan Park.
It wasn't always this way: last year, the unassuming Dunnamaggin farmer didn't get to play a single minute of competitive hurling with the Cats.
Strange as it may seem, Hickey could be said to embrace two contradictory classifications -- he is the quintessential "teak tough full-back" who also happens to have been injury-prone for extended stretches of his decorated career.
In the height of summer 2005, he was struck down by a serious viral infection that could have damaged his heart. He sat out the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway. Kilkenny leaked five goals. It was their last championship defeat. Draw your own conclusions.
Hickey bounced back the following year, and he still looks back on that 2006 All-Ireland triumph against Cork as the standout memory from Kilkenny's subsequent run of unbroken success.
Mind you, he was never going to choose any moment from 2009. "Last year, I just went from one thing to another with injuries," the 29-year-old reflects. "It was great to be involved last year, but you can't beat being out on the field on All-Ireland final day so I'm really looking forward to it (tomorrow's showdown with Tipperary)."
He duly reprises his recurring tale of '09 woe: "At the start of last year I had the two operations on my groin. I came back and did my medial knee ligament and I was out for a while with that. Then I did my AC joint in my shoulder coming up to the All-Ireland final. So I never got a chance to get the hurling up, or the fitness good enough. It was very frustrating. Normally you get one injury and you get over it, but last year it was one thing to the other. It was a year to forget."
At the time, you suspect, the glass-half-empty merchants were raising their drinks to toast the wonderful career of Noel Hickey, former inter-county hurler. The man himself had no such doubts.
"Not really, no," the three-time All Star demurs. "In '09 it was just stupid injuries -- I got a knock on my knee and a knock on the shoulder. You know if you stick with it that it'll come around. This year I was fit and injury-free at the start of the year, so I was able to do all the training in January and February and build up a level of fitness. You just have to stay positive."
For Hickey, though, staying positive will not entail thoughts of what it will be like if Kilkenny can make it five All-Irelands on the spin. "You can't be thinking about the sideshows and the head has to be fairly clear," he argues. "You just have to go out in every game to take on the man you're on. If everyone wins their individual battle, the team should win.
"As we say inside, if five in-a-row motivates you or drives you on in games, then use it by all means. Myself, I just go out in every game to be totally focused on the job in hand. The job is to get the better of your man."
For Hickey, and many of his colleagues, that is exactly what happened in 2006, back when this unbeaten All-Ireland odyssey began. "The Cork team that we beat that day were a super team and they were after beating us in 2004, when we were going for three in-a-row," he recalls. "I was marking Brian Corcoran (in '04) and I didn't really have a good game on him. We came back in 2006 and I was marking him, and you just love to get back and set the record right. If you were to ask me the best All-Ireland, that would definitely be the one."
Who knows, if Kilkenny can complete the famous five tomorrow, even that cherished memory could be eclipsed.