Shefflin's early rise a wake-up call for rest
Walsh Cup cameo shows Kilkenny and their talisman mean business in his final season
It wasn't quite uncharted waters for Henry Shefflin but it wasn't a familiar path either that he took to launch his 16th and most likely his last inter-county season in the quiet backwater of Freshford last Sunday.
Inter-county hurling in January for arguably the game's greatest player just doesn't have a familiar resonance to it. Not quite Tiger Woods pitching up for the Madeira Open or some obscure Tour competition like it, but most unusual nonetheless.
Only once before, on the final Sunday of the month in 2005, when the Cats saw off Dublin by 1-14 to 1-13 in a Walsh Cup quarter-final, is there a record of Shefflin stepping out in black and amber at this time of year.
Of course there are several mitigating circumstances. In the first few years of his inter-county career, the Walsh Cup didn't routinely get under way until February anyway and with fewer participants then, prior to the participation of third-level colleges and counties from other provinces, Kilkenny invariably only had to play two games to win it outright.
So the last trace of 'H Shefflin' on a Kilkenny Walsh Cup teamsheet is nine years ago when he played all three games to land the pre-season title in mid-February.
Since then, pre-seasons with Kilkenny haven't really existed at all, a combination of extended rest, club commitments with Ballyhale in 2007, 2009 and 2010 and predominantly injury limiting his time down this early stretch of inter-county fare.
In the years since, his league appearances have amounted to just seven (one of which was cut short early by his removal from the 2009 league final after an early yellow card at the end of the disciplinary rules trial period).
That year he had his best pre-championship run with Kilkenny, featuring in the wins over Dublin, Clare and Cork, dubbed the 'Nowlan Park massacre' for its brutal nature after the Rebels had ended their third strike just a few weeks earlier and Denis Walsh had taken over as manager to quite a baptism of fire.
Shefflin featured in the league finals of 2006 against Limerick and 2007 against Waterford in addition to the 2006 semi-final against Tipperary.
However, he hasn't played a single minute of the last four league campaigns, the combination of cruciate ligament, shoulder and that most frustrating foot injury that dogged him well into the summer, ruling him out for the last three.
That he should present himself once more in light of that trio of injuries and the length of time it ensured he had to remain off the field is real testament to the depth of character that surfaces so often in the heat of battle.
Kilkenny won two of the four titles in his absence, perhaps giving them a false sense of security that they could thrive without him.
So Henry's presence in Freshford for the visit of Galway on Sunday may yet prove a seasonal milestone of great significance.
It certainly has the capacity to be one of the intriguing themes to 2014 to see where and how the most decorated hurler in the game will drop his anchor.
His selection last Friday night almost certainly doubled the gate to about 1,500, and among those there was a consensus that he moved well and showed little effect of the long lay-off last season that confined him to little more than an hour of inter-county hurling.
His decision to play on in 2014, as explained in an interview with the Irish Independent last September, was always predicated on game time without interruption.
"I don't know what kind of form I'm in, what kind of shape I'm in because I haven't played enough matches. I need to get a run of matches, see how that goes, see how the injuries go and then make a decision I suppose come the end of the year," he said.
Thus, when a campaign with Ballyhale Shamrocks went well and a few league games – he hurled with his club on the morning of the drawn All-Ireland final – were dotted into the schedule, he was in a position to make such a decision.
It is unlikely that, even if 35-year-old Shefflin stays fit and well and remains sharp over the coming months, he will play in all of Kilkenny's five league games across a six-week period in February and March.
Brian Cody will surely balance his need for games with the load being borne by a body that has taken so much punishment in recent years.
But seeing some league action will represent an achievement in itself that perhaps will resonate only with Shefflin himself.
There is some irony in the quick announcement that the Walsh Cup final against Dublin was being pushed into Croke Park before the Dublin/ Kerry football league lift-off on Saturday night. Kilkenny's failure to reach a Leinster final or an All-Ireland semi-final meant that they didn't play in Croke Park at all in a season for the first time since 1951.
Now they are in it before the hurling season even awakens properly from its slumber.
Kilkenny have the feel of early-risers this season. And no one, it seems, has been more perceptive to the chime of the alarm than their talisman.
Last September Shefflin noted how hurling always seems faster when you are looking in.
His appearance so early this season points to a man hell-bent on looking back out again.