Sunday 25 February 2018

O'Driscoll can inspire Shefflin to go for one more year

Unfulfilled season can keep fire burning for pursuit of perfect 10

Brian O'Driscoll opted to play on for one more year after a disappointed season in the Irish jersey
Brian O'Driscoll opted to play on for one more year after a disappointed season in the Irish jersey
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The only question to be asked of Henry Shefflin today is not whether he might retire, but why on earth he should. He left Thurles on Sunday cheated of the opportunity to accurately read just where his 34-year-old body is in relation to championship hurling.

Not, incidentally, by Barry Kelly's decision to show him two yellow cards, but by the consequences of a seemingly innocuous injury sustained in Wexford Park on December 1 last.

Cruelly, Shefflin has now faced into four of the last six seasons with preparation compromised by lengthy rehab programmes for injuries (two cruciate tears, a ripped shoulder cartilage and a broken bone in his foot), yet still won four All-Irelands in that time as well as another four All Star awards and a Hurler of the Year crown.

The latest injury was, ostensibly, the least serious, yet – perversely – the one that ended his remarkable record of having started every championship game in Brian Cody's tenure as coach.

The glib, ageist interpretation of Shefflin's fitness woes this season has tended to feed the conclusion that his body is at breaking point.

Brian O'Driscoll, Henry's junior by 10 days, has encountered much the same soundtrack in recent times whenever there's been the slightest mutation in his performance graph.


The two men have enormous respect for one another and Shefflin and his wife, Deirdre, were guests at O'Driscoll's testimonial dinner in London last March. Both now find themselves in an oddly similar place.

O'Driscoll lost the Irish captaincy and was part of a team that had a difficult Six Nations, culminating with a first ever defeat against Italy in a game during which he was sin-binned. He was then, controversially, omitted from the Lions match-day squad for the final Test against Australia.

His form was often splendid for Leinster en route to winning the Pro12 and Amlin Challenge Cup but every blip seemed to find its context in O'Driscoll's age.

Yet, he has committed to another season in the professional game simply because his body tells him that the fire within is not yet spent.

And, for Shefflin, that is the only conversation that will decide his future now. The one with himself.

There has long been a popular assumption that he will step away from Kilkenny the moment Cody leaves. The two have forged an extraordinary bond during the county's spell of unprecedented dominance and there is little doubt that one without the other would seem strange in any Kilkenny dressing-room.

That said, it is highly unlikely they will be discussing their futures with one another this week or any week soon, for that is not how either one goes about their business.

Shefflin will almost certainly monitor his form in the upcoming Kilkenny championship with Ballyhale Shamrocks before making any call on his inter-county future.

He will feel that circumstance effectively left him strait-jacketed for the county this year. The call to play him from the start against Cork last Sunday was a gamble forged on the belief that the psychological advantages of his presence in a struggling team would outweigh the dangers concealed in his lack of hurling.

And even as Kilkenny struggled, Shefflin's leadership qualities were visible as he literally directed Kilkenny's attacking operations under puckouts.

Roughly eight minutes before his dismissal, he drove a glorious low delivery through to Richie Hogan on the edge of the Cork square, only to see the Danesfort man's effort blocked by a diving Shane O'Neill.

The intensity of the exchanges had necessitated a brief abandonment of his familiar green helmet for a red one, yet his first booking escaped the attention of most in the Kinane Stand press box.

Shefflin had moved in to left corner-forward, certainly not his preferred position, shortly before the second yellow. Yet, the fearsome competitor within had him battling back inside his own half when he collected that second yellow for a challenge on Jamie Coughlan.

He will have been devastated by Kelly's decision, but it simply wouldn't be Shefflin's style to engage in public histrionics. The moment that red card came from the referee's pocket, he just calmly unclipped his helmet and walked off the field without a word.

The notion that that might be his final act in a Kilkenny jersey seems positively repugnant now for a man with nine All-Ireland medals and 11 All Stars.

Shefflin knows too that, having struggled for fitness all the way into July last year, he still did enough in August and September to be declared Hurler of the Year.

Imagine a winter free of injury now and the promise of a free run into pre-season training? Don't doubt for a moment that that is now how Shefflin will be thinking.

The truth is that he cannot possibly know if there is another campaign in his injury-scarred body because he simply did not get the opportunity this summer to find out. At the very least, he owes it to himself to get an answer to the question.

Shefflin will be 35 in January, but don't be surprised if he is still chasing that grand obsession.

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