THE fuss and excitement will all but explode as the week progresses and match time approaches, but the man at the centre of the upcoming media storm has anticipated it, and he has braced himself for it, writes John Knox.
Henry Shefflin, a 14 year veteran of the senior inter-county scene with Kilkenny, is within 70 minutes of turning a sporting lifetime into history by claiming a 9th winners’ All-Ireland medal on the field of play.
The greats, Ring, Doyle, Mackey, and Keher et al failed to do it. But the proud son of the small parish of Ballyhale, with fellow panellist, Noel Hickey, could rewrite the history books in Croke Park.
Shefflin has been around long enough and knows the media animal well enough to understand that he is more than a paragraph in the story of All-Ireland final 2012.
“It’s a very small part,” was the play it down replay offered when it was suggested his current standing was interwoven with the story of this particular decider.
“For me it is all about winning a game,” he added with more assurance and authority. “That is what it is about really.”
On Sunday he will race from the dressing-room to play in his 61st championship match. Already he is the top championship scorer of all time with 27 goals and 459 points (540 points). He has scored a goal in 14 consecutive championships, which is an unprecedented run.
The Shefflin file roars on and on.
About winning a game
“Winning your first like all the Galway lads are trying to do is as important as trying to win your sixth, seventh or whatever,” he added when a gap in the conversation was left for him to fill. “This is all about winning a game, which happens to be the All-Ireland final of 2012.
“The outcome will lead to a whole load of different stories whatever way the result goes. But right now it is only about two teams trying to win a match.
“From where Kilkenny have come from this year the final is a brilliant place to be. We have to cherish it because I suppose after the Leinster final a lot of people thought we might not be in one for a long time. It is great to be back and looking forward to having a goal at winning another title.”
Opponents Galway are one of only two teams – Cork being the other in the National League – who lowered the colours of the double chasing Cats this season. While fans might want to think the drubbing suffered in the Leinster final was a ‘once off’ thing, Shefflin suggested it was a warning, a serious warning.
“In the Leinster final we were hammered in the first half, while in the Tipp match for 40 or 45 minutes there was nothing in it,” he reminded when he rewound to two of the last three championship outings. “Then we got a couple of goals and Tipperary heads dropped a bit.
“That was the big difference for me. That is why I would be very careful. Galway are a serious team. What they did to us in the Leinster final was a real eye opener, for everyone, for all Kilkenny people.
“They never let us into the game. The way they hurled was terrific. The hunger they had was exceptional. Joe Canning was back defending on his own ‘40’ and once won a ball off Richie Hogan.
“That was the level of commitment they all brought to the table. That is what we have to try and get up to if we are to match them.”
Reference to Canning dropping deep brought up the question of Galway tactics, and the commonly held belief that they pack their defence. Shefflin, a shrewd reader of games and situations, didn’t think so. Galway’s dominance all centred on their hunger for the ball.
“Actually it was very similar if you look at the 2006 final to the way Kilkenny played against Cork,” he suggested. “We were just hungry for the ball. We were mad to tackle the Cork lads.
“I think there was an element of that with Galway in the Leinster final. They were just mad for the ball, and they were all over us. There were three or four of them everywhere we went.
“There was only one Kilkenny lad. We weren’t backing each other up, doing the support play because we weren’t doing the hard work. That is the level we have to try and get to.”
Cats were snarling
Against Dublin in the previous game the Cats were snarling, closing down the pitch on the opposition, inflicting hurt at every turn.
“We felt good going into the Leinster final after the strong win over Dublin, but Galway just wanted it more on the day,” was his summary on reflection.
The same thing made the difference in the All-Ireland semi-final. Kilkenny’s hunger was greater than Tipp’s.
“Apart from the one final against Waterford, which was a bit of a freak, every final has been tough,” he said when he put Sunday’s match in context. “They are All-Ireland finals. They are meant to be. Sunday will be no different.”
How the bookies have made Kilkenny red hot favourites astounded him.
“I just can’t understand that,” he said with an air of disbelief. “Galway were beating us by 14 points at half-time in the Leinster final. What was that, six, seven weeks ago? How have things changed so much?
“The All-Ireland final is very different. There is a lot to it, a huge build up. It will be all on the day. It will be a serious match. If we can match their intensity, match their hunger and match their work-rate we will be in with a chance.”
The Noresiders rehabilitation, if you like, since the Leinster final was comforting, nothing more. The All-Ireland quarter-final victory over Limerick was a “nice step up” after what happened in the provincial final. The subsequent victory over Tipp brought further improvement.
“That is the way you would like things to go,” he smiled,” having your form improving all the time. But when you have determined opponents trying to stop you at every turn it is not easy.
“If we go out and don’t do it on the day people will say it was a bad year for Kilkenny; no Leinster final, losing the All-Ireland final. Everyone would have thought Tipp were tipping along nicely up to the semi-final.
“If you suffer a loss there is a lot of negativity. If you win there is a lot of positivity. Basically we are trying to decorate the year. Look, everyone says at the start of the year it is about winning the All-Ireland.
Fit and strong
“It is not about winning the League, as we did, or the Leinster championship. While they are nice, they are part of the whole thing, but at this stage it is about winning the All-Ireland.
“If we don’t win it, it is not a successful year; there is no doubt about that.”
He is 33 years old now, but the body, he insisted, was in top order after all the injury problems he has had. He was feeling fit and strong.
“I am feeling good and looking forward to the final,” he smiled. “You cherish these moments. As you get older you look forward to every match. I pinch myself to be sure I am playing in an All-Ireland final again. Hopefully we can get the right result.”
His place in history now, or on Sunday evening, won’t make much of a difference if Kilkenny win, he insisted.
“What is behind me matters little in real terms at this point,” Henry said. “Every day you go out you have to prove yourself. That is what I will be out to do on Sunday….prove I can still do it, that we, Kilkenny as a team can do it.”