WHATEVER about the relevance of league form at the start of summer, it is a notoriously wayward barometer come mid-June, yet Henry Shefflin admits Kilkenny’s stuttering spring remains a minor concern.
It was by no means a disastrous campaign. Wins against Offaly, Dublin, Limerick and Waterford secured a solid eight points and fourth place in Division One despite the absence of a number of front-line troops, Shefflin among them. That said, three defeats to Tipperary, Cork and Galway by a combined total of seven points hurt, if only because Brian Cody’s men have made a habit of edging tight contests no matter how many leaves are on the trees. ”To be fair, you know from talking to Brian that he’s very positive in the league and wants to do well every year in it and in every match,” said Shefflin. “I’d say he’s disappointed. I wasn’t there myself but, definitely, some of the matches in other years we could have won. Maybe we just took the foot off the gas. Maybe the other teams were just better than us. ”There would be a small bit of worry around that, a small concern at losing those tough matches because we know ourselves that we would have won them in other years. ”From that side it definitely would be worrying that our league performances wouldn’t be good enough for the championship. We know we have an improvement to make.”
The reigning All-Ireland champions are the last of the Liam MacCarthy contenders to dip their toes in the summer waters meaning that nine weeks will have passed since their last competitive game when they face Dublin this Sunday. A comprehensive thrashing of Waterford in a challenge match a few weeks ago would suggest that the layoff won’t unduly affect them but Shefflin will be bridging a far greater gap between inter-county starts. His last appearance in a Kilkenny shirt for a competitive fixture was in last September’s All-Ireland final but club commitments and those legendary Nowlan Park training sessions have been keeping him sharp. ”The way the league worked out, I was due to come back but was away for a couple of days. ”We were kind of gone out of the league at that stage and, with only one game to play, Brian was trying out a few new lads. I was involved in the panel then. ”Other years I’ve had the injury and I didn’t play anything with my knee. League matches and stuff like that. I’ve played a few club matches and they’re as tough as you get so I’m happy enough. We have plenty of training matches inside in the park so they’ll give me a good opportunity against Tommy (Walsh) and JJ (Delaney) and these lads.”
No manager past or present has been able to pitch a side so perfectly for championship hurling as Cody who has obviously been aided by the wealth of great players at his disposal. Whatever about their league form and its significance this weekend, John Mullane recently pointed to the return of Noel Hickey from a lengthy injury as evidence that the current Kilkenny side is actually stronger than ever. Shefflin’s take on that? “Last year showed that we were very lucky in some of the games and it was a lot tighter than the year previous. The gap has definitely tightened and I think the league has shown that again. ”A couple of the teams have overtaken us and we’re back a few steps from where we want to be. If we are going to win it we’re going to have to improve as the year goes on and that’s the way we’re going to approach it. ”It’s hard to know. You just don’t know. I think we have taken a step back, there’s no doubt about that. Our performances over the last year and a half reflect that from where we were in ‘08.” DJ Carey’s experience is that hunger deserts the game’s greats long before their exquisite skills. Shefflin has gorged on success like few others but still has his eyes on some juicy treats.
The magical five-in-a-row is still within reach – so too is a record haul of All Stars, though he rejects the notion of that being a personal goal. ”At the beginning of the championship (the media) just churns that out there, but if it got towards later in the championship and we were still there … obviously there is a lot more pressure around it then. ”At the beginning of the championship everyone is starting in the one boat. September seems a long way away. We’ve been used to it with the three and the four. It’s kind of there, part and parcel of it. ”It’s a cliche but it’s the truth that we can only concentrate on the 20th of June. If we look any further than that it would be wrong. That’s the way Brian (Cody) approaches it.”
This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Wednesday, June 16,