On a gorgeous Monday afternoon, 13 days before an All Ireland SHC semi-final between Galway and Limerick, Henry Shefflin stands on the top floor of the Lough Rea Hotel & Spa.
Forty eight hours earlier Galway eked out a victory over Cork to earn another Croke Park outing. In the inter-county arena there is always another challenge to be faced, the planning and plotting was already underway.
Shefflin’s car journeys from Kilkenny alongside selector and friend, Richie O’Neill, provides an opportunity to discuss players, form, and matches.
“At the beginning of the year, there was definitely a sense of transition,” Shefflin says. “I don’t think you can say that now because our stamp is on it.
“And even myself and Richie coming from Kilkenny up, we’ve become a lot more comfortable with our surroundings, the people, our backroom team and the players themselves.”
Covid restrictions were a significant factor for teams at every level, especially in 2020 and 2021. “I suppose it was very difficult for Shane [O’Neill] and the previous management team in Covid times trying to come from the outside in,” he adds.
“That’s definitely helped that those restrictions have been lifted and it’s given us an opportunity. We’ve had a lot of games, the round robin has been great because we have had ups and downs and learnings.”
Introducing new talent and integrating players back into the Galway fold has been one of the success stories for the Galway hurlers in recent months.
“I think, myself, that I’ve become a lot more comfortable with the players and that’s growing the whole time,” Shefflin says. “A victory like Saturday does bring on that connection again which I think is very important.
“I think you come up and you try to just get the best from yourself but you also try to get the best from the players. That’s what you do, you do it in the fairest way possible, and you give everyone as good an opportunity as you can and that’s what we’ve strived to do.
“Some players have come in and out, but I think, overall, the group and the way they apply themselves and the effort they put in, I would have massive respect for everything that they’re doing.”
Undoubtedly elite sport brings awkward hurdles that must be cleared, but Shefflin, ever the competitor, still relishes the chance to excel: the fact that possibilities exist.
“I think whatever sport you’re involved in, it just brings out the best in people,” he replies. “For me, myself and Deirdre and the family at home, we love it, as anyone that’s involved in the inter-county game does as does anyone that’s involved in the club game. That’s why, you get the enjoyment. Was it tense and anxious on the line last Saturday? Yes, it absolutely was.
“But that feeling of euphoria when you win a big game like that, that’s what sport is supposed to be about. It’s the highs and lows and the difference between how you feel on the Sunday morning after the Leinster final like compared to a tight game like that. It’s a massive commitment and everything like that, but what other way would you want it? You just really enjoy the whole aspect of being involved in something like this.”
Bitterly disappointed to lose the Leinster SHC decider against Kilkenny, Galway summoned a gritty response when defeating Cork. How difficult a spell was the fortnight between those crucial encounters?
“I think the two weeks was good for us because we needed it,” Shefflin says. “There was serious disappointment and a bit of hurt there and I think it was good to wash that out of the system.
“Again, we got back training quickly, we got back on the field quickly and we said we would try and hurl our way out of it rather than talk our way out of it. The couple of sessions the first week weren’t brilliant, but they were very important.
“And come the weekend then I think we were back in a good position to focus. Then once we knew on the Sunday that we were facing Cork, it was to focus on Cork and try and build it from there. That was important.”
Now, though, Galway face standard bearers Limerick at GAA headquarters. Despite injury to key personnel, Limerick still won a compelling Munster final against Clare. Shefflin is fully aware of Limerick’s considerable craft.
“I was just looking back on when we were announced as the new management team, myself and Richie, I think it was October 20, I said in the statement that it was a unique opportunity and a unique challenge,” Shefflin recalls.
“Do you know what, based on today, I think it’s fairly apt. It’s a unique challenge because we’re facing a team going for three in-a-row, they’re going to be raging hot favourites. But it is a unique opportunity for us to go in with no major pressure and have an opportunity to face up to the best.
“That’s what you want to do as players and as a management team – you want to challenge yourself. That’s what we’re going to get against Limerick. Because look at what they’ve done, even in the Munster final and the way they overcame that challenge against Clare, I think it was enormous and you would give them the most respect for what they do on and off the field.
“To be fair, I think the whole group is great. That’s what you want to measure yourself against. You want to measure yourself against the best and there’s no doubt about who are the best and number one.”