If ONE grew up in the forties and fifties the name Christy Ring loomed large over the hurling landscape. I did not see Ring playing (other than on video) but I have read enough to know that his iconic status was well deserved.
More knowledgeable (and a little older) hurling enthusiasts than I can offer a better judgement on the famous Cloyne hurler, but facts do not lie.
On to the sixties and it was Kilkenny’s Eddie Keher who took over the mantle from Ring. I would not even dare to compare the players as they were the greatest hurlers of their generation.
When it came to winning All-Ireland medals I suspect that few believed the impressive haul (8) of Christy Ring and John Doyle, his great rival from Tipperary, could ever be matched let alone bettered.
Then along came Noel Skehan to pass the illustrious duo ‘with nine’. It is only a statistic that a couple of those Celtic Crosses won by Skehan were as substitute to Ollie Walsh, because no one worked harder for this remarkable achievement than the Bennettsbridge custodian.
Although Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary are regular favourites to win All-Ireland titles, the general belief was that it would take an extraordinary run by one of those counties for the next player to match the long standing All-Ireland medal haul.
But an extraordinary and powerful force was emerging at the turn of the century. They wore black and amber jerseys and they were about to rewrite the record books.
The stuff of legend
Given the talent, appetite and ability of that powerful side, both on the pitch and on the sideline, it was inevitable that the record from an earlier generation would be matched. Now the big question is whether that record can be surpassed in 2013.
Henry Shefflin and Noel Hickey have both won nine All-Ireland medals, and even if a tenth medal is not collected in 2013, their achievements thus far is the stuff of legend.
Being part of a consistently successful side does help to infuse renewed enthusiasm at the start of every year. Nevertheless, players must have the desire, hunger and ambition to want to repeatedly return year after year
Both Shefflin and Hickey have those traits in abundance as their long and loyal service to the cause of their native county sets them apart from many of their colleagues. Both have endured severe injuries over the years, only to return refreshed and reinvigorated after a period of convalescence.
They could well be calling Henry Shefflin the bionic man in 2013. Two serious knee injuries, an injured shoulder and now an ankle knock would be enough for most people to take leave of their favourite sport.
Not Shefflin. He has defied the best medical experts to return even stronger after each horrific injury.
While that medical advice was always heeded it was ultimately the long monotonous hours in the gym on his own which ultimately ensured that hurling’s greatest ever player continued to return to the scenes of his finest triumphs.
It is a very lonely existence working on one’s own trying to build back worn and damaged ligaments. Coming back from a serious injury once is within the compass of most sportsmen and sportswomen, but to come back on so many occasions requires unique personal characteristics.
Without Shefflin’s dedication and willpower to recover from each injury, Kilkenny would not now be celebrating the winning of their 34th All-Ireland title. That’s the stark reality of one player’s input to Kilkenny hurling.
Apart from his unique hurling prowess, Shefflin’s leadership skills were also paramount and contributed hugely to Kilkenny’s many successes.
His ability to get more out of all his fellow players, particularly when facing ‘the eye of the storm’, bailed the Cats out of many a tricky corner.
Noel Hickey may not have as high a profile as Henry Shefflin, but do not let his quiet demeanour disguise for one moment the bravery and tenacity which the Dunamaggin man brought to the full-back position.
If Shefflin was the orchestrator of the Kilkenny attack, it was Hickey who was the immovable force at the other end of the pitch on which many an opponents attack floundered.
Dermot Kavanagh’s recent book on the players who wore the No 3 jersey for Kilkenny shows how blessed this county has been to have players of immense strength, courage and no little hurling skill manning such a crucial position.
Most custodians ‘of the square’ remain household names whenever Kilkenny hurling is discussed, and none has bettered the displays of Noel Hickey over his long tenure.
Full back play has changed over the years. For decades it was raw and brutal; part and parcel of a game in which the physicality of a team was seen as perhaps as important as its hurling skill.
That is no longer the situation. Physical strength is still a requirement, but over recent decades the skill level of the full-back has been a welcome addition to the game of hurling. Noel Hickey best exemplifies the growing status and athleticism of the hurling full-back.
His astute eye for a breaking ball; his ability to pluck the sliothar from the air and his sharp sense of anticipation to every emerging danger ensured that the Kilkenny defence was safety secured for most eventualities.
To appreciate even further the contributions of Shefflin and Hickey one needs to consider their busy lives away from the cut and thrust of championship and league hurling.
For Shefflin it is coping with the daily challenges of working in the financial services business. For Hickey it is tendering to his farm in the hinterlands of Dunamaggin. Both jobs require lots of personal input, commitment and dedication.
Is it any wonder that both bring those same qualities to their play when wearing the county jersey?
At the recent All-Ireland medal presentation they both signalled their intentions to play on for one more year. Was there ever any doubt that they would not?
But returning for one more championship season brings no guarantees. Both players know that and they equally know that Brian Cody’s form has always been to play players on merit.
Henry Shefflin has been the continuous link with the successful Brian Cody era. His availability once again in 2013 significantly enhances Kilkenny chances of attaining another three in-a-row.
Like this year Noel Hickey may not be an automatic starter in 2013, but what a powerful talent to have in reserve should the need arise. Irrespective of any further achievements, both have already written their iconic status into the annals of Kilkenny hurling folklore.
As a new year dawns we wonder if there is still one more chapter to be written by Henry Shefflin and Noel Hickey.