FEW players of any sport ever receive the kind of rapturous ovation that greeted Henry Shefflin’s brief foray into the action on Saturday evening - his first in a black and amber jersey since last year’s All-Ireland final.
The applause came from both sets of supporters, is something you don’t see that everyday. Just the sight of him warming up created a ripple of excitement prior to throw-in, even before the announcement revealing he would be on the bench. That announcement, not without its own semblances of theatre, was greeted by the Nowlan Park crowd much in the way that audiences react to ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund introducing a lycra-clad hero.
Shefflin was responsible for that crackle of energy, but the atmosphere in general was superb, and he was quick to acknowledge that.
“It was electric,” he said. “The sunshine and everything made it special.
“I think - I know it’s not nice going the qualifier route - but a night like tonight is something that we’ll always remember for the years to come. It’s a special occasion, and there probably should be more games in grounds like that. And I suppose that was the ideas of the qualifiers, having games like this. Everyone loves that.”
In the days prior to the game, Shefflin had been all but ruled out by everyone, with even Brian Cody casting serious doubt on the likelihood of him making an appearance. His return even defied the expectations of the medical team, with the stress fracture to his foot meaning he still needs to avoid pressure on it.
He had been involved in training the previous Monday night, but that was the first time he had taken hurl in hand really.
“Brian said last week, at that stage I had a decision to make, with my surgeon and stuff like that,” he said.
“So we made the decision - well the surgeon certainly wasn’t going to stop me - but he would rather it had been another couple of weeks.”
The extent of his availability for this weekend’s crunch clash with Waterford remains unclear. Joyful return to the field aside, he is still a long way short of championship - and indeed, any - game time. His battle for fitness will be assessed this week during training sessions, the intensity of which will reflect the fact that this team has been through three championship games in three weeks.
“I wouldn’t be able to play a 70-minute match, no way,” said Shefflin.
“Because I haven’t done it. I’ve only done 20 minutes at training basically, that’s it. I have been doing straight-line running in runners, only put my boots on two weeks ago and my helmet last week.”
The fans aside, few appreciate Shefflin’s return as much as his team-mates. Not so much for bolstering their own ambitions - but for him, for what he has done for the game, Kilkenny, and his desire to do more. Just ask fellow All-Star Paul Murphy:
“I think it’s important for Henry at this stage. He’s done so much for us, he’s stood up in so many games,” said Murphy after the match.
“We are training away, we’re lucky enough that a lot of us aren’t injured - we get a few niggly ones here and there, but he’s been very unlucky. I think for Henry himself, it was a great lift to see him coming on, and we were delighted to see him coming on. Not just that he was coming on to help us or that he was going to change the game, but for all his training, all his work.”
Now it’s about trying to achieve a level of consistency that Kilkenny have just not had in recent weeks. The past week has been enormously draining, physically and emotionally, and getting right again is the challenge.
“For the group, here in Nowlan Park, there was a lot written about ourselves - the older players - that if they’d have lost tonight, there would be question marks over them,” Shefflin said.
“I think they answered those questions, and some of the boys were absolutely magnificent. So it’s a massive win for us, but it’s not worth anything unless we can go on and do something in this championship, and that’ll be the test next weekend.”