Hurling and camogie

Defeating Cork in 2006 All-Ireland final stands above the rest: Kilkenny legend Henry Shefflin

Kilkenny players Henry Shefflin and James McGarry celebrate after the Guinness All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Final, Cork v Kilkenny, Croke Park, Dublin in 2006

Hurling legend Henry Shefflin won 10 All-Irelands, 13 Leinster titles and 11 Allstars with Kilkenny and tasted All-Ireland glory with his club Ballyhale Shamrocks both as a player and manager. After much discussion, he tells Brendan Crossan that the best victory of the lot was Kilkenny's 2006 All-Ireland final win over Cork...

YOUR first free in an All-Ireland final. Let the angle be kind. The game is seconds old. It was an anxious, maybe even lazy drag on Kilkenny’s Aidan Fogarty by Cork captain Pat Mulcahy.

The free is awarded dead centre and well inside the 65-metre line.

Perfect.

Despite a blinding sun hanging over the Canal End, Henry Shefflin doesn’t over-think things.

He stands to the sliotar’s left, looks up, strikes and splits Cork’s posts.

Kilkenny are off to a flyer in the 2006 All-Ireland final against treble-chasers Cork.

Without bragging, Shefflin remembers feeling a “little bit invincible” in ’06.

“I think you want to get an easy first one,” he says. “Actually, with lockdown now there’s been a lot of games on TV and I came across the 2010 All-Ireland final [against Tipperary] where I was very, very nervous before the game because of my knee injury and my first free was not a nice angle, it was on the 65, out to the wing on the left hand side and I completely pulled it. And I missed another one after that.

“My body was very tight and anxious so I wasn’t that loose.

“In 2006 it’s just your mindset and how you’re feeling. I felt very good at that period of time. I was very confident in what I was doing and the way I was striking the ball.

“I think at that age you’re so limber and loose, these things come a little bit easier to you, and I was coming off the back of a very good All-Ireland semi-final [an eight-point win over Clare], so an easy one like that against Cork kind of eases you into the game.”

As the famous stadium filled up in resplendent sunshine on Sunday, September 3 2006, the Kilkenny players walked around the pitch soaking up the pre-match atmosphere. They were all struck by the thickness of the grass.

The players looked at each other.

“We noticed the grass was very long and you’re thinking: what’s going on here? Never experienced that in Croke Park before or after that and it just slowed the whole thing down a little bit, which probably suited us a bit too.”

Kilkenny were on a revenge mission.

Brian Cody’s men had been humbled by their fiercest rivals in the 2004 decider and succumbed to a devastating Galway side in an All-Ireland semi-final a year later.

Before a ball was struck in ’06, doubts swirled around the Kilkenny camp. It was being whispered that Brian Cody was yesterday’s man, especially in the face a Cork side that had seemingly reinvented the hurling wheel with a brilliant running game and all the aesthetics that came with it.

On a personal level, the ’05 season didn’t end well for Shefflin after James Stephens retained the Kilkenny senior hurling title at the expense of his Ballyhale Shamrocks.

Despite seeking his fourth All-Ireland winner’s medal and a fifth Allstar, Shefflin was feeling far from bullet proof heading into the new season.

“For me, I’d been playing for the county since 1999 and I was one of the mainstays in the team at that stage. And even though it sounds a bit ridiculous and you go on to play for another nine years or whatever it was, I was thinking at that time: ‘What if we lose this one? What if Brian Cody goes? What if a new manager comes in?’

“I was 26 then. Would the newer players come in because 2005 went so poorly for us? And it finished out very poorly for myself as well. I was just glad to see the back of ’05 from a hurling front.

“I remember speaking to Brian after the county final defeat in 2005. I was very down on myself and where I stood in hurling. I remember him speaking to me and him getting my head up out of my shoes.”

In truth, Cody relished the unfolding narrative of ’06.

Cork played with their collars up. Donal Og Cusack was the team’s impassive quarterback in goal.

They had a half-back line to die for: John Gardiner, Ronan Curran, Seán Óg Ó hAilpín.

Full-back Diarmuid O’Sullivan was Cork’s modern-day answer to Cú Chulainn. Nobody gets the better of ‘The Rock’. Absolutely nobody.

Jerry O’Connor and Tom Kenny formed a hard-running and creative midfield while Joe Deane and Ben O’Connor were wonderful pick pockets alongside the totemic Brian Corcoran in the forward line.

And the Rebels themselves were never shy in projecting this ‘infallible’ image having already claimed back-to-back All-Ireland titles with emphatic wins over Kilkenny (2004) and Galway (2005).

“It was the first time where I had two years where Kilkenny hadn’t won an All-Ireland, so we were heading for three years without one. As well as that Cork were obviously our arch-rivals in that period.

“They were playing a new brand of hurling, this was the ‘new style’, this was the way the ‘future was looking’.

“In ’04 and ’05 I think you would’ve had to be very impressed with Cork, but it was up to us – and obviously Brian Cody was taking the lead. His attitude was: were we going to let this be the new game?

“Of course, it’s like anything, the siege mentality comes into it. Everyone was blowing up Cork’s style of play, the media was blowing it up and we were thinking: ‘Well, we’re putting in as much effort as Cork and we’re not getting any recognition for what we had achieved’.

“So that bit of siege mentality came into it. When you step out of it now and you’re retired you do use anything to get that extra few percent.

“In ’06, we knew if we got an opportunity against Cork we would have to perform at a very high level and try and stop their running game.”

Shefflin played under Brian Cody for his entire inter-county career and has nothing but admiration for the way in which he managed successive Kilkenny teams.

Of course, he was tactically astute – you don’t walk endless miles of inter-county terrain otherwise – but, looking back, Shefflin was always impressed by Cody’s unshakeable belief in himself and his ability to lead.

“On those days he gives you something,” Shefflin says of the veteran Cats boss.

“That’s what we were seeing the whole time. He’s a motivator, he’s driving and he’s leading. You take that ’06 final: he was so confident and had such belief in what we stood for, and what way we wanted to play.

“Yes, he let us do our thing and have our team meetings and he gave us the reins to maybe implement those tactics and strategies that we would have spoken about, while the whole time taking the lead.

“He gave us the power to do that. We knew what Cork wanted to do but Brian would say: ‘But this is what we want to do.’

“We were coming up against a team that so much had been written about and they had beaten us two years previous.

“Does Brian doubt himself? No. There’s not a second question about that. And to get the most of the players, he got a lot out of me that year.

“We went through the Leinster Championship that year. We hit our peak against Galway in the quarter-final and we played Clare in the semi-final. But that Galway match was a big game for us. Again, he got the best out of us for that game.

“We had a team meeting before Galway where he really challenged us, got us angry, got us very motivated but had us right for what was lying ahead.”

In their pursuit of three-in-a-row, Cork’s victory margins in ’06 were small – six points (Clare), three points (Tipperary) and two one-point wins over Limerick and Waterford in the All-Ireland quarter-finals and semi-finals, respectively.

Kilkenny, meanwhile, had swept through Leinster and the All-Ireland series with a bit more to spare, with their victory margins ranging between five and 14 points.

Cork might’ve been everyone’s favourites to make it a hat-trick of All-Ireland wins, but Kilkenny were in a good place – up until JJ Delaney, their star defender, suffered a training ground injury 10 days out from the final.

Kilkenny without JJ against Cork? Kilkenny’s odds lengthened considerably.

When news seeped out of Delaney’s injury in the days leading up to the final, the entire county despaired.

Inside the camp it was a different picture.

“It happened in our last big training session,” recalls Shefflin, now 41.

“I remember it happening, but as much as we felt sorry for JJ, there was no moping around or feeling sorry for ourselves. And JJ as well, he’s so quiet about things, he just limped off to the sideline and he was gone from the final.

“Brian [Cody] was like: ‘Right, puck out the ball, let’s keep going.’ There was no stopping training and everyone inspecting how JJ was. He was a massive loss, obviously. But JJ being JJ we knew he wanted nothing more than us going out to perform.

“And it set it up nicely for Noel [Hickey] as well because he was such a warrior for us, and there probably was a little bit of doubt there because he obviously had the heart problems the year before. But he’d bounced back from that.

“Brian Corcoran had been massive for Cork the previous two years and had done well on Noel in ’04. But we knew what Noel was made of. We’d no concerns at all.

“But even the way Brian handled the JJ Delaney injury; his aura, his presence. His job was to get the best from the players and the team and during that period of time he did that more often than not. It wasn’t anything scientific, but there was a strategy, there was his mental psyche all over that team and it was up to us to go out to deliver.”

The team meetings in the lead-up to the final were some of the best Shefflin can remember. Everything had been nailed down.

‘Just don’t rush into the Cork players, lads. Just stay with your man, hassle him and make him strike it…’

And yet, everything the Kilkenny players had spoken about “went out the window” when the ball was thrown in.

Tyrone may have patented the intensity in the tackle three years earlier when they famously harassed and hustled Kerry into submission in the first half of their All-Ireland semi-final.

Kilkenny did the exact same to Cork in ’06.

“Intensity was the big word,” Shefflin acknowledges.

“We were so fired up and so hungry… Because there was so much spoken about the way Cork were playing and the Cork tactics over the previous couple of years, especially in their drive for three-in-a-row, there was a lot more media attention on it. You were reading this and hearing this…

“When you watch the video back we did totally the opposite to what we’d say we’d do. When one of the Cork lads had the ball, it went from one, two, three Kilkenny players surrounding him.

“People talk about strategy and all that, our tactic was we wouldn’t rush it, we’d stay with our men. I just think that intensity was so much in us.

“We’d players of 22, 23, 24 years of age and then another group of 26, 27, 28 and we were able to cover the ground. And the game flowed from there; we just out-worked them and brought that intensity. Because Cork obviously liked possession, we needed to turn them over a lot with that manic aggression of tackling.

“And, look, Cork were on the road for three years and they just didn’t have that appetite that we had on that day.”

Shefflin’s free in the opening seconds set the tone.

The Ballyhale attacker would go on to hit four of Kilkenny’s first five points of the ’06 final while his beautiful 27th minute strike from the Cusack Stand side epitomised their boundless work-rate and skill.

Aidan Fogarty hassled John Gardiner into coughing up possession in the corner of the pitch and the wing-back’s poor clearance was gratefully accepted by the unmarked Shefflin who slung over to put Kilkenny 0-7 to 0-6 in front.

Kilkenny’s real break for home came a couple of minutes later when Fogarty, who played a dream final, latched onto Diarmuid O’Sullivan’s mistake under Martin Comerford’s high ball to lash the ball past Cusack in the Cork goal.

Fogarty’s major might’ve only put Kilkenny three ahead, 1-7 to 0-7, but the score robbed the Cork backline of their renowned composure and they simply didn’t recover in the second half as Cody’s men were able to maintain their incredible ferocity.

John Tennyson had cancelled out any lingering concerns Kilkenny had at centre back, stand-in full-back Noel Hickey placed Corcoran under house arrest, James Fitzpatrick was head and shoulders above anything in midfield while Jackie Tyrell and James Ryall played brilliant supporting roles.

With Richie Power and Eddie Brennan landing big scores in the final quarter, Cork’s three-in-a-row dream was extinguished before the final whistle, even though Ben O’Connor’s 67th minute goal made it a three-point game.

But Kilkenny held on to avenge their final loss of two years previous. John Tennyson gripped the ball just before the final whistle sounded. The Cats were in dream land.

“We felt a sense of euphoria which is very hard to describe and you could see it John’s face and the subs swarming onto the field. It was a wonderful feeling.”

Shefflin’s movement, calmness and decision-making on the day were exceptional as he top-scored with 0-8 (0-5 frees).

“For any player, when they look back over their career I would say they identify the ages of 26 to 29 because that’s when you’re at the peak of your powers from an athletic point of view, so that year I really did feel in good shape.

“The final wasn’t my best final but it was a solid performance. I was in great physical condition… I just felt a little bit invincible. Whatever was thrown at you, you could come back with a little bit more. It just made the whole year enjoyable. And of course Ballyhale won a county title in November that year [their first since 1991]. That All-Ireland final win and county title victory were two of the most memorable in my career.

“While Kilkenny and Cork didn’t like each other during that period, what I will say, behind it all, I went on trips with a lot of those lads and we had great craic together and we had the height of respect for each other.”

How they lined out…

Kilkenny: J McGarry; M Kavanagh, N Hickey, J Tyrrell (capt.); J Ryall, J Tennyson, T Walsh; D Lyng (0-1), J Fitzpatrick (0-1); R Power (0-1), H Shefflin (0-8, five frees), E Larkin; E Brennan (0-1), M Comerford (0-1), A Fogarty (1-3). Subs: W O’Dwyer for Larkin (45), R Mullally for Lyng (69). Yellow cards: M Comerford (21), N Hickey (27).

Cork: D Og Cusack; B Murphy, D O’Sullivan, P Mulcahy (capt.); J Gardiner (0-1), R Curran, S Og O hAilpin; T Kenny, J O’Connor (0-1); T McCarthy, N McCarthy (0-1), B O’Connor (1-4, 0-1 free); N Ronan, B Corcoran, J Deane (0-6, five frees). Subs: K Murphy for Ronan (39), C Naughton for T McCarthy (58), C O’Connor for Murphy (64), C Cusack for Kenny (70), W Sherlock for Mulcahy (47). Blood Sub: C O’Connor for O hAilpin (35). Yellow Cards: D O’Sullivan (21), P Mulcahy (44), J Gardiner (68), N McCarthy (70).

Referee: B Kelly (Westmeath)

Attendance: 82,275

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Hurling and camogie