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John Mullane: Kilkenny may struggle to be great without the greatest of them all

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Henry Shefflin has injury concerns. Photo: Sportsfile

Henry Shefflin has injury concerns. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Henry Shefflin has injury concerns. Photo: Sportsfile

KILKENNY will struggle to retain their All-Ireland title without Henry Shefflin, in my opinion.

And the ankle injury sustained by Michael Fennelly on Friday evening is another big setback for the Cats. Fennelly is a colossus and was the difference between winning and losing the league final against Tipperary.

I can't speak highly enough of Shefflin either. The timing of the announcement that he won't feature against Offaly on June 9 was delivered in typical Kilkenny style. They've knocked it on the head now and the 'will he, won't he' talk will not overshadow preparations for the game.

Henry is simply irreplaceable and the measure of the man is his ability to bounce back from serious injuries in recent years to get himself fully fit for the championship. My abiding memory of Henry is the second half of the 2008 All-Ireland final. There he was, with Kilkenny hammering us, still chasing down our defenders and berating the referee over decisions. What makes him the player he is is his vision, quick hands, obsessive workrate, accurate free-taking, leadership skills and that unique relationship with Brian Cody.

Henry is Cody's clone on the field and his seriousness appears like it borders on boring at times. Henry never had the speed of DJ Carey, and early in his career, he wasn't as lean as he is now. But his serious dedication to fitness and nutrition saw that lean, mean scoring machine emerge in the last decade. He's had to endure four operations in five years, and to come back from those at the latter end of his career tells you all that you need to know about the guy. Anybody else would have walked away.

Joe Canning mentioned in the build-up to last year's All-Ireland final replay how Henry was querying refereeing decisions and how Joe felt that was unsporting behaviour.

But if you're able to influence a referee or sow a seed of doubt in his mind about a decision, why not do it? And Henry is the one player capable of potentially reversing a referee's decision. Why? Because he's Henry Shefflin – the greatest hurler of all time. Shefflin hasn't missed a championship game under Cody and in that time, he's racked up 62 appearances, 27 goals and 480 points.

He's won five Kilkenny club titles with Ballyhale Shamrocks, three Leinster clubs and two All-Irelands. With Kilkenny, his achievements are quite staggering: 12 Leinster titles, nine All-Irelands, five National Leagues, 11 All Stars, three-time Hurler of the Year. Throw in two Fitzgibbon Cups and how could you argue that he's not the greatest player that the game has ever seen? Henry keeps coming back for more and that tells me a lot about his mental strength.

I know how frustrating a serious injury can be. I broke my arm in a club game ahead of the 2006 championship and was out for 12 weeks. Our first game was a Munster semi-final against Tipperary and while the team are preparing, I was a helpless onlooker.

Luckily enough, I made it back on time and happened to play 20 minutes but I was nowhere near fit enough. I worry about Henry's levels of fitness when he returns this time. You could see him playing a lot closer to goal, as he did for spells last year, at corner-forward or full-forward.

Kilkenny have proved that they can win league titles without Henry but last year, he single-handedly dragged them back into the drawn final against Galway. And go back to the 2010 final when Kilkenny lost to Tipp: Henry had to go off with a knee injury in the first half and Tipperary benefited significantly from that. He was told he had no chance of playing in that final after damaging his cruciate but he still tried to play. It maintained his appearance record and I think the fact that that record is in jeopardy now will play on his mind a small bit.

He's at the stage of his career now where he wants to achieve as much as he can and leave a legacy that will never be matched. If I was him, I'd be disappointed. Off the field, Henry is a sincere, humble man – when I retired, he went out of his way to ring me and wish me all the best.

Of all the well wishes that I received, that call was the highlight and yet another example of why these Kilkenny players are so unique and special.

Cunningham working oracle at Laois

THAT was a massive win for Laois against Antrim on Saturday evening. Ger Cunningham is working alongside manager Seamus Plunkett (right) and he's also helping Michael Ryan in Waterford. Cunningham was down with the lads yesterday on a training camp at Fota Island and the players can't speak highly enough about him.

Having masterminded the weekend victory for Laois, Ger's next big task is to help Waterford devise a game plan to beat Clare in a fortnight's time.

For those who might not know him, Ger is based at University of Limerick and he's the man that fine-tuned the running game that brought Newtownshandrum to All-Ireland club glory.

That template was refined again by Cork when they won All-Ireland titles in 2004 and 2005, so this guy knows his stuff. Plunkett pulled a rabbit out of the hat getting him involved with Laois and they're now moving in the right direction.

Laois is a proud hurling county and beating Antrim is a massive statement. The National Athlete Development Academy (NADA) are also working with Laois and they've been looking after Dublin's hurlers and footballers also.

The next challenge for Laois is Carlow, who enjoyed a good win over London on Saturday.

But for Kevin Ryan and Antrim, this is a massive setback. I feel sorry for Kevin because he's had to work without a number of top players. Liam Watson would be a massive addition to that Antrim set-up but he's not there for one reason or another.

Charity trophy would be fitting tribute to Donal

RIP Donal Walsh – the boy who wanted to play for Munster and travel the world. What a legacy this inspirational young man has left behind. I watched his TV interview and read his article in the Sunday Independent.

I was so touched by how brave he was and the way he spoke will save lives. He touched an entire nation and beyond. New Zealand rugby player Dan Carter contacted him on Twitter and the Munster guys were especially good to him.

He was a 12-year-old boy who became a man at 16 years of age. And I'd really like to see the IRFU honour his memory with a tournament in his honour. A Sevens event, perhaps, or how about an inter-provincial pre-season tournament? You could play it Railway Cup style, with two semi-finals over one weekend followed by the final a week later.

Name the trophy after Donal and donate the gate receipts to charity. How fitting it would be to see the four provinces battling it out at Ravenhill, Donnybrook, Thomond Park or the Galway Sportsgrounds.

Donal (pictured left) influenced so many people within the rugby fraternity and I believe that it's incumbent upon them to keep his spirit and memory alive.

I'd like to take this opportunity to pass on my best wishes to his family and friends. They've lost one hell of a guy.

Irish Independent