Wednesday 21 March 2018

There'll be life after Shefflin

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

For most of the late 1990s and the early part of the last decade, it was difficult to have a vision of Kilkenny hurling beyond DJ Carey.

After Carey had orchestrated the 2000 All-Ireland final rout of Offaly, his position as the team's key influence was never clearer.

When he made his late summer cameo in 2002 after the Leinster championship to play his part in All-Ireland semi-final and final victories over Tipperary and Clare, that talismanic image was embellished.

The 0-19 to 0-17 victory over Wexford in the '02 Leinster final had been, and remains, their smallest winning margin in a provincial decider under Brian Cody's management. Carey's return seemed to elevate them on to another plateau.

But by '03, despite being captain, Carey's influence was waning. New leaders and new influences had emerged. The unthinkable was happening. DJ was becoming peripheral to the momentum of the team. He stayed on for two more seasons before announcing his retirement prior the championship in '06.

But by then, on the back of league successes in '05 and '06, Kilkenny hurling had already set off on a different path, and they were ready to embark on their historic four successive All-Ireland titles.


The same depth of dependency has never weighed on Henry Shefflin as it did on Carey at the apex of his career. Shefflin is considered by many to be the greatest hurler ever, but he has also played on the greatest ever hurling team.

Still, life without him has always been difficult to contemplate. Their one championship defeat since '05 -- the 2010 All-Ireland final to Tipperary -- came against the background of the cruciate ligament injury Shefflin sustained in the semi-final win over Cork four weeks earlier.

He limped off after just 12 minutes of that decider when his knee gave way from under him to compound his problems. It was the shortest time he spent on a championship field in a Kilkenny shirt, and they lost.

Kilkenny couldn't survive without him then. Could they now?

After last Sunday's dismantling of Cork's renaissance under Jimmy Barry-Murphy, the terms and conditions for Kilkenny hurling, their place in the game and what they are likely to achieve, appear to have shifted again.

They have raised the stakes once more. Clearly they are not allowing themselves to be held back by anything.

Life beyond Henry Shefflin? It's not the appalling vista it may have seemed just a few years back.

Of course, they are a much better team with him in harness. As they are with Richie Power and Michael Rice too. But without him they look like they can now cope much better than they ever imagined they could.

When they lost last year's league final to Dublin, the injuries clearly had an impact. The toll was just as significant 12 months on but the impact, incredibly, was negligible unless they had designs on winning by more than a point a man.

The emergence of TJ Reid as a central figure in this league, the impact of Eoin Larkin at full-forward, a position he had an initial distaste for, the opportunism of Colin Fennelly, and the emergence of Matthew Ruth and the athletic Cillian Buckley provide a snapshot of Kilkenny well into the future.

Richie Hogan's desire to get into the thick of the action after such a serious injury is reflective of the player he has become.

There may be gnawing concerns about the defence, but the collective approach to stopping opponents supplants any potential deficiency. The pace of the conveyor belt and the product it keeps churning out has even surprised Kilkenny's most seasoned observers. They scarcely saw this coming.

From the team that started the 2009 All-Ireland final against Tipperary, only six started on Sunday. Richie Doyle looks like he could have the debut season in defence that Paul Murphy had last year. Shefflin will return of course with the precision of a Swiss clock, just in time for their opening championship match, which will most likely be against Dublin.

Recovery from this shoulder injury has been hard and laborious. Only last week he recalled how he "almost fell off the chair" when the surgeon told him how long he'd be out of the game for. It had to have been demoralising.

But no player has become more accustomed to the hard road to recovery during the winter months than Shefflin.

As much as the scores and the barnstorming displays, it is the diligence to return in time for each summer campaign that underlines the character he has and the mental resilience. To return after this latest setback so soon after the 2010 cruciate would rank high among any of his achievements.

Kilkenny have got used to spring campaigns without Henry. Between All-Ireland club campaigns with Ballyhale Shamrocks and the severity of the injuries and recoveries he has had to endure, he has grown distant from league hurling.

It is quite a statistic that in their last 50 league matches, from the beginning of the 2006 campaign to last Sunday's league final, he has only played in six. His last league game for Kilkenny was that epic final win over Tipperary in Semple Stadium in 2009.

When Kilkenny hurlers began announcing retirements at the same rate as Fianna Fail ministers at the end of the last Dail, it may have been a reason to breathe sighs of relief among their hard-pressed opponents.

Now that they have reeled off a league title so easily without so many key players -- Shefflin chief among them -- it suggests that they are already headed towards a new era.

Irish Independent

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