Wednesday 20 November 2019

King Henry still reigns supreme

Henry Shefflin, Kilkenny, celebrates scoring a point to make the scores 1-10 for Galway to 0-13 for Kilkenny in Sunday's All-Ireland final
Henry Shefflin, Kilkenny, celebrates scoring a point to make the scores 1-10 for Galway to 0-13 for Kilkenny in Sunday's All-Ireland final
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Last May seemed like a good time to imagine a vision of the future and ponder life for Kilkenny hurling beyond Henry Shefflin.

Still struggling to shake off the lingering soreness of a shoulder injury that had derailed him for six months, he watched from the sidelines as Kilkenny delivered one of those 'shock and awe' assaults on Cork to bring an early conclusion to the league final in Thurles.

Richie Power and Michael Rice were missing that day too but the ruthless nature of the victory and the clear empowerment that new players clearly felt in a black and amber jersey pointed to a new and lucrative chapter in this team's evolution.

Shefflin would be back, of course, but the team were being weaned off the dependency they had developed on him.

In the 50 league games Kilkenny had played from the beginning of the 2006 campaign until that first weekend in May, Shefflin had turned out in just six, a combination of injuries and the success of Ballyhale Shamrocks in the club championship restricting his contributions to the Cats predominantly to the summer months.

It seemed responsibility was resting easily on new shoulders, as players like TJ Reid, Richie Hogan and Colin Fennelly came of age.

Their only championship defeat across the same period of time, 2006 to 2011, was suffered in that 2010 All-Ireland final against Tipperary when Shefflin limped out just 12 minutes in after compounding the cruciate ligament injury he had sustained in the semi-final just a few weeks earlier.

But now it was reasonable to assume that the dynamics had changed, that Henry no longer needed to be all things to all men.

Midway through the first half of last Sunday's All-Ireland final, Shefflin, having started at left corner-forward where Fergal Moore had been posted on sentry duty, moved out to centre-forward.


There appeared to be no obvious prompt from the sideline for it to happen, so the assumption was that the game's most decorated hurler had made the call himself.

Given that he would opt to go for a point instead of a goal from the penalty later on without instruction from the management, Henry clearly has licence to improvise in this way as he sees fit.

The impact wasn't immediate but, as the game wore on, the importance of the switch could not be overstated. The sense of urgency about him was so palpable that it made the movement and mood of his colleagues seem almost casual.

When he went for goal from a 20-metre free in the 16th minute, which Moore was alert enough to bat away, it was Shefflin who sprinted quickly behind the goals to retrieve the ball and keep momentum high.

He would miss the subsequent '65', one of three early chances spurned from placed balls, but the optics were that of a man tuned in, a man in a hurry.

Kilkenny went further adrift in the 13 minutes after that, but it was Shefflin's pass for Eoin Larkin's first point and three further points from frees that got them back on to dry land again before the break.

That same sense of urgency was evident on the restart when he attacked the throw-in, won possession and set up Richie Power for a free which he would convert to punch a further dent in Galway's increasingly fragile lead.

Just as he had done in the Leinster final, Shefflin was heading up the search party to track down Galway -- only this time the hunted were not too far over the horizon.

Inevitably, he became Kilkenny's mood setter, slapping Power on the back by way of encouragement when the Carrickshock man, struggling for form, turned over Niall Donoghue minutes later to engineer another score.

It was fitting then that he would provide the stroke of parity in the 50th minute, sprinting out ahead of Kevin Hynes to collect one of Brian Hogan's now endless stream of deliveries and firing their 13th point.

Measuring one of Henry Shefflin's All-Ireland final displays against another is difficult because of the different nature of each game.

His inspiring last quarter in the 2009 decider against Tipperary -- when he nailed the crucial penalty -- has to be measured against the cliff top that Kilkenny were peering over for so much of that match.

His opening salvos in last year's decider against the inexperienced John O'Keeffe were instrumental in laying a platform.

But without him Kilkenny simply could not have banked on finding a way back into their latest All-Ireland final.

If it wasn't his greatest September effort then it was certainly his greatest half.

The great irony is that after such an impressive second half he should choose to send his penalty high into the upper reaches of the Davin Stand instead of tapping into the momentum that had been building through his own performance.

But he had earned that right and perhaps only he would not have felt compelled, at that moment, to go for goal.

Historically Kilkenny have made a habit of deploying Shefflin to exploit the most apparent weakness in opposing defensive chains, Limerick in 2007 and Tipperary in 2011 being the obvious reference points.

On Sunday it was to Galway's strongest link that he gravitated and changed the game.

Four months on, Kilkenny can appreciate what life will be like without him.

Irish Independent

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