Monday 23 April 2018

King Henry's finest hour

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Henry Shefflin raised bar even higher as he defied injury with rousing tour de force to single-handedly drag Kilkenny back from brink in drawn All-Ireland final.

THE week of this year's Leinster hurling final, Henry Shefflin felt trapped in an invalid's body. He had gone for yet another MRI scan after the semi-final defeat of Dublin, convinced that his shoulder was still not right. Exactly seven months on from surgery to repair ripped cartilage, Henry was experiencing sporadic pain and a rising ocean of self-doubt.

At Kilkenny's final training session before facing Galway, team doctor Tadhg Crowley confirmed to him that the latest scan had shown up nothing untoward. Structurally, the shoulder was sound.

For the long-term injured, good news isn't necessarily what you want to hear. Not when you crave an explanation. At 33, and dealing with his third career-threatening injury in five years, it is probably safe to say that Shefflin was facing a psychological Becher's Brook in early summer.

On the Monday before that Dublin game, he had been unable even to puck a ball against the gable wall of his parents' home in Ballyhale.

And now Galway were about to drill a gaping hole in Kilkenny's hull, taking their first Leinster crown with an ease that triggered all manner of gloomy prognoses for Brian Cody and his team. The greatest side the game has seen looked dead on its feet. The greatest player? RECORD As he put it in a recent interview: "From that day, I didn't talk to the surgeon again. We had too many other issues to resolve." So how do you rationalise what Shefflin achieved subsequently? That a man whose arm was back in a sling five months after surgery could finish the year with a record ninth AllIreland medal, an unprecedented 11th All Star and voted 'Hurler of the Year' represents maybe the highest watermark in the game's most decorated career.

Put it this way. In a poll of his greatest performances, which would you place at No 1? Bearing in mind that, in 62 championship appearances for Kilkenny, Shefflin's average scoring return from play exceeds 0-3, where on earth do you look for his finest day? The 2002 All-Ireland final? The 2009 semi-final? Frankly, I doubt the man himself would look any further than this year's drawn All-Ireland final with Galway. Kilkenny were a shadow of themselves that day, so many of their marquee players moving as if in quicksand. When Joe Canning nailed a glorious early goal, just as he had done in the Leinster final, a grisly reprise loomed.

Yet, Shefflin dragged his team back from the precipice. Argumentative, aggressive and endlessly showing for the ball, at times it was if he – and he alone – could access a sense of outrage at the idea of Kilkenny slipping meekly under.

It wasn't splashy, catwalk hurling from the Ballyhale man. It was a primal outburst. Canning was subsequently moved, perhaps innocently, to stir controversy with his observation that Henry hadn't been, well, entirely gentlemanly.

But, bottom line, Shefflin saved Kilkenny. If you measure a man by the positive influence he exerts at key moments, this flew right off the scale. The oldest man on the field, the one who had encountered the most debilitating physical setbacks, the man who – Heaven knows – should have been the most sated, somehow found it within himself to rage. And yet, it wasn't as if his mind was a smoking coal. When Kilkenny were awarded that late penalty, Shefflin just calmly did the arithmetic. A point would leave Galway needing two scores to survive. Going for goal would be a needless roll of the dice.

Now, how hindsight and history would have judged Henry's decision, had Galway won the subsequent replay, is probably a moot point. But here was a day when greatness was written over just about everything he did. Given the circumstances of his season, probably the King's finest hour.

It was an oddly confused year for hurling mind, the confusion perhaps articulated best by an All Stars selection that gave Galway a higher representation than the double-winning Kilkenny. Taken at face value, the maths made little sense. But the truth is Kilkenny carried more doubt through the summer than has been their norm under Cody.

That Leinster final drilling was a jaw-dropping spectacle, Galway racing into a 1-6 to 0-0 lead after just 17 minutes. By the midpoint, their advantage was a scarcely credible 2-12 to 0-4, Kilkenny having scored just a solitary point from play. This against a Galway defence that, in its two previous championship games against Westmeath and Offaly, had leaked a combined 7-27.

It was hurling, just not as we knew it. Then again, that would pretty much be the jumbled personality of the season. When Galway lost an April Fool's Day league game in Nowlan Park by 25 points, they looked a team doomed to yet another barren summer.

But Canning returned after a lengthy injury lay-off for their relegation play-off against Dublin and that, coincidentally or not, was when Galway finally got some wind in their sails.

It was also when a penny seemed to drop for Dublin that, maybe, their form wasn't all they had hoped it to be.

The Dubs hadn't won a competitive game since their 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat of Limerick, yet they'd gone extremely close in wonderful league clashes with Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny. The latter, regrettably, had no TV cameras to record the almost unique spectacle of a Kilkenny defence leaking six goals.

Trouble was, the Cats responded with five goals of their own to win a terrific game by a single point.

Dublin did manage a draw with Tipp, but they seemed to be doing a hell of a lot of hurling for minimal reward and, when Galway won that relegation play-off – with 14 points to spare in a replay – Anthony Daly had to be concerned.

By the league's conclusion, pundits wondered aloud if it might save a lot of inconvenience by just tying black and amber tassles to the Liam MacCarthy Cup there and then, rather than indulge in any dilatory pretence that Kilkenny might have a serious challenger.

Cody's men had devoured Cork in the league final (3-21 to 0-16) with players like Shefflin, Richie Power and Michael Rice sitting injured in the stand. As statements of intent go, it was withering. And, sure enough, they carried that form into the Dublin game, winning at a virtual canter against palpably traumatised opponents.

So novenas were being offered up for Galway as the Leinster final loomed. And that was when the season really came alive.

In Munster, meanwhile, Tipp were pushing towards a two-in-a-row, coming back from the dead to beat Limerick, squeezing past Jimmy Barry-Murphy's Cork, then doing just enough to overcome Waterford in the provincial final. Lar Corbett, having left the panel for three months, was back in harness too.

If quality was, at times, questionable, there was no doubting the competitiveness of the Munster Championship. Just a point separated Tipp and Cork, while there were only two between Waterford and Clare and four between Tipp and Limerick.

And it was a championship that seemed to signpost bright futures ahead for Limerick and Clare particularly, the latter subsequently putting Kilkenny to the sword to win their second All-Ireland U-21 crown in three years.

Inevitably, the senior semi-final between Kilkenny and Tipp consumed public interest, given the remarkable trilogy of recent finals provided by these old blue bloods. But the build-up flattered the game wildly. With Corbett leading Tommy Walsh, Jackie Tyrrell and team-mate Pa Bourke in an almost comical linedance, Tipp seemed to forget the fundamentals of making and taking scores.

Having been flattered by a onepoint half-time lead, the team collapsed in the second period, shipping their heaviest championship defeat since 1897.

Galway comfortably accounted for Cork in the other semi-final and there was a sense that, for all the contrary evidence of the Leinster decider, the two best teams in hurling had made it to September.

Without Shefflin to contend with, Anthony Cunningham's men would undoubtedly have won Galway's first senior All-Ireland since 1988. But a familiar story unspooled in the replay of Kilkenny just not giving opponents a second chance at glory.

Galway were not helped by injuries carried into the game by Canning and goalkeeper James Skehill, the latter having to be replaced at half-time with a clearly compromised shoulder. But Cody's decision to abandon a rigid man-marking game and revert to Kilkenny just hurling with the freedom of old also carried profound influence.

At the end of a year in which they had often looked down on both luck and confidence, the Cats simply remembered to trust themselves.

For Shefflin then, that unprecedented ninth medal arrived, but after sustaining a foot injury that sabotaged Ballyhale's hopes in the Leinster club championship, he faces winter surgery for the fourth time in six years, and then extensive rehabilitation.

Incredibly, he has still started every championship game played on Cody's watch and, if there are signs that age may be making him more susceptible to injury, there is no evidence of rust in either Shefflin's talent or competitive will.

The bookmakers quote Kilkenny at evens to retain their crown in 2013 and, with Shefflin still aboard, it is difficult to mount a counterargument. After all, but for that cruciate injury in 2010, they might now be on seven-in-a-row! For the rest of hurling, the game being played is catch-up.

2013 All-Ireland hurling betting: Kilkenny evens; Tipperary 3/1; Galway 4/1; Cork 12/1; Dublin 20/1; Limerick 25/1; Clare 25/1; Waterford 28/1; Offaly 100/1; Wexford 200/1; Antrim 500/1; Laois 1,000/1; Carlow 2,500/1; Westmeath 2,500/1; London 3,000/1.

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