Sunday 17 December 2017

How Kilkenny brood lost their way without talisman Shefflin

Coming events cast their shadows before. As last Sunday's thrilling All-Ireland hurling final continues to have its fascinating component parts forensically analysed, one clear conclusion presents itself.

The source for the range of problems which proved even beyond the correction capacity of Kilkenny wasn't to be located in the missed opportunities just after half-time or in Tipperary's two-goal blitz a little later. Nor did Kilkenny's pursuit of five-in-a-row have anything to do with it.

No, the real reason why Kilkenny weren't at their best arose from incidents which occurred in the previous month -- the first on Sunday, August 8 (at 3.57pm to be precise); the second on the evening of Wednesday, August 25.

When Henry Shefflin fell awkwardly in the 27th minute against Cork, the early diagnosis was that he had injured his knee so badly that he wouldn't be back until next summer.

Kilkenny were leading by 10 points at the time and had already booked in for the All-Ireland final.

Neither Shefflin's departure, nor indeed the absence of centre-back Brian Hogan, who exited earlier with a shoulder injury made any difference to Kilkenny against a Cork team which couldn't breathe in the claustrophobic atmosphere created by their opponents.

Hogan's recovery was overshadowed by the news that Shefflin might, after all, play in the final. However, on the night 8,000 people turned out in Nowlan Park to witness for themselves that Shefflin was on his way back -- if not to full fitness, but to a level where he could start -- Hogan broke a finger.

SERIOUS

It was a serious loss for Kilkenny. John Tennyson, who like Shefflin had damaged his cruciate, battled back bravely to play in the final, but, unsurprisingly, wasn't as secure as usual.

Shefflin -- or rather his absence for the last three-quarters of the game -- was the more significant factor.

It's impossible to be definitive as to what impact he would have had if he were fully fit. However, his performances in nine previous All-Ireland finals must surely be allowed as evidence to suggest that he would have made a substantial difference.

He missed an early free, while Richie Power also missed a few frees, all crucial losses in such a pressurised environment. However, Shefflin's biggest loss to Kilkenny -- especially in that crucial period up to the hour mark when the game was very much alive -- revolved around leadership issues.

It would be unfair to characterise the Kilkenny forwards as headless chickens without Shefflin, but it certainly was a case of a brood not quite sure of how to deal with the outside world without Mother Hen.

The work ethic which underpinned so much of what Kilkenny did throughout the last decade was still there but lacked direction and subtlety.

Kilkenny charged at the increasingly confident Tipperary defence with as much power as they could muster when what the occasion really demanded was added guile, more angled passes and greater composure.

Shefflin would have provided all three while, like any good Mother Hen, also acting as a decoy to attract the foxes away from the danger area, allowing the brood to prosper.

That's not to say that Kilkenny would have beaten Tipperary even if Shefflin were playing. We simply don't know. Kilkenny leaked 4-18, their highest in an All-Ireland final since 1971. Conceding two goals in two minutes, as they did in the 42nd and 44th minutes, is most un-Kilkenny like and had nothing to do with Shefflin's absence.

However, if Hogan had been playing, it's unlikely that the routes through the centre of their defence would have been as comfortable for Tipperary's attackers.

For all that, the scores had to be taken and unlike the 2009 final, Tipperary carried their sharpest arrows this time. They missed at least three excellent goal chances last year and, while PJ Ryan deserved credit for his saves, he shouldn't have been given a chance.

The winner takes it all and when Kilkenny closed out the 2009 final with two goals, it was portrayed as a group who knew how to win big games as opposed to a team that was still acquiring the art.

Clearly, Tipperary learned a whole lot in the interim and were leaving nothing to chance last Sunday by ensuring that they were a safe distance in front over the final 10 minutes.

The difference in structure, application and execution, between the Tipperary which lost to Cork in May and the one that beat Kilkenny last Sunday was incredible. The qualifier run, followed by demanding quarter and semi-final ties with Galway and Waterford, left them ideally placed for the supreme effort against Kilkenny.

Kilkenny's easier passage against Dublin, Galway and Cork created the impression that they were better than last year, but there was no real evidence to support that. Dublin appeared to have slipped back; Galway were badly set up, and went for damage limitation once Kilkenny asserted themselves, while Cork had a substance-free day in the semi-final.

It had been evident for some time that Tipperary were the most likely to break Kilkenny's remarkable winning sequence, a role they lived up to in every game since May 2009 with the exception of the Cork clash last May.

They were primed for the huge test last Sunday and delivered with an impressive swagger.

As Brian Cody said, the best team always wins the All-Ireland title, but it won't stop hurling fans wondering if Kilkenny's five-in-a-row prospects went down with Henry Shefflin on August 8.

Providing Shefflin makes a full recovery -- and there's no reason to suspect he won't -- he will be back on board next year.

Tipperary v Kilkenny in the third and decisive shoot-out on September 4, 2011? It would make Ali v Frazier look flat. It's quite a prospect and a real possibility too.

Irish Independent

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