THE return to action of Henry Shefflin at club level has given Kilkenny hurling a much-needed boost after one of the worst weeks in their recent history.
Not only were they demolished 0-22 to 1-7 by Dublin in the National League final, but they then had defender John Dalton suspended for eight weeks for his assault on Conor McCormack. The ban rules Dalton out of Kilkenny's Leinster Championship semi-final on June 11.
What's more, forward Eoin Larkin gets an automatic four-match ban for his sending off in the league decider. Fortunately, this does not rule him out of any championship games because Kilkenny have a bye into the semi-finals.
There can be absolutely no complaints about the length of Dalton's suspension. Television evidence showed him to hit McCormack with the hurley and then kick out at the Dublin forward as he fell to the ground.
Consequently, the Kilkenny County Board has confirmed that it will not be appealing the suspension. They didn't really have a leg to stand on after what has been a dismal episode for the county.
Kilkenny will bounce back, they always do, but the question is whether they will be good enough to regain the All-Ireland crown. Certainly, the aura of invincibility that surrounded them for so long now appears to have gone.
Their starting point must be to get some of their top players back in action and to recognize their limitations against Dublin. Importantly, they seem to have made progress in both areas.
Shefflin made his long awaited return to action in a club game last weekend. Although it was only as a second-half substitute for Ballyhale Shamrocks against Dunnamaggin, the 32-year-old did enough to suggest that it won't be too long before he is able to resume at inter-county level.
He played for just 20 minutes, scoring two points. It was his first appearance since aggravating a cruciate knee ligament injury in last year's All-Ireland final defeat by Tipperary.
Selector Brendan Mason commented: "Henry has been training five or six times a week and he looked very sharp and fit. More than anything, he was afraid that he might lose the hurling sharpness, because fitness wise, he has always looked after himself."
Kilkenny fans will now hope that he continues to make progress over the next month. There's absolutely no doubt that the absence of Shefflin and other top players didn't help against Dublin, but, at the same time, it would be wrong to try and excuse their performance on that basis.
Quite simply, Kilkenny were terrible. Defender Jackie Tyrrell has admitted as much, describing the display as "the worst I was ever involved in with Kilkenny."
The All-Star, who captained Kilkenny to their 2006 All-Ireland title, also admitted that they lost their discipline. He said: "The lads were getting frustrated. You never really see that from Kilkenny teams, lashing out and things like that.
"We just have to look at ourselves and start from there, there's no point in blaming anyone. It was the worst performance I was ever involved in with Kilkenny.
"A lot of things in our game weren't up to scratch. Fair play to Dublin, they are really moving in the right direction, but we seem to be going backwards.
"We need to take a good look at ourselves. I think we need to go back to back to what we were doing in the past - an unbelievable work-rate, more so in our forwards, putting teams under pressure, forcing turnovers and getting scores."
Kilkenny could face Wexford in their June 11 Leinster semi-final. But first Wexford must see off the winners of next weekend's first round tie between Laois and Antrim in the May 29 Leinster quarter-final.
Tipp impressive vs. young Rebels
ON a very quiet weekend, most of the action was at minor level in the Leinster Hurling Championship.
But there was one important game in the Munster Minor Hurling Championship with Tipperary scoring a decisive 2-16 to 1-9 victory over Cork at Semple Stadium. Tipperary will now face Clare in the semi-finals, with Waterford and Limerick meeting in the other last four encounter.
In Leinster, Kilkenny and Dublin will renew their rivalry in the semifinals. Kilkenny saw off Westmeath by 2-10 to 1-11, wth Dublin beating Wexford by 1-18 to 3-10.
Elsewhere, Laois got the better of Meath 2-21 to 4-8 and Offaly beat Carlow 3-15 to 1-10.
On the Ladies Gaelic Football front, Cork secured the National League Division One title by defeating Laois 4-15 to 3-9, while Dublin won the Division Two crown with a 3-15 to 2-9 success over Meath.
The Division Three final was won by Clare, who got the better of Fermanagh by 3-10 to 1-12.
Hurlers may get 30,000 at Croker
TO no one's great surprise, Dublin's Leinster Hurling Championship quarterfinal against Offaly on May 29 has been switched from Parnell Park to Croke Park.
Following Dublin's National League success, it's anticipated that a crowd of 30,000 could attend the Offaly game. So, the GAA authorities had no option but to move the encounter to the headquarters venue.
Provinces take 3 semi berths
EVERYTHING points to an Irish province winning the Magners League title after it was confirmed that Munster, Leinster and Ulster will contest next weekend's semi-finals.
The only side standing in the way of an Irish success is the Ospreys who made it into the semi-final by the skin of their teeth with a late James Hook penalty against lowly Italian outfit Aironi.
There were no such problems for Munster, Leinster or Ulster. Munster decisively saw off the challenge of Connacht 22-6 at Thomond Park and will now face the Ospreys at the same venue in the semi-finals.
Leinster were even more comfortable winners by 38-3 against Glasgow Warriors at the RDS and are rewarded with a home semi-final against Ulster. The nothern province made sure of their last four spot with a worthwhile 20-13 away victory over Newport Gwent Dragons.
The league standings saw Munster finish well clear on top, 13 points ahead of second placed Leinster. Ulster were three points back in third spot, with the Ospreys edging out the Scarlets for the fourth position.
After the disappointment in losing to Harlequins in the Amlin challenge Cup semi-finals, it was important that Munster responded. They did so in reasonable fashion, taking some of the pressure off coach Tony McGahan by scoring three tries against Connacht.
Fittingly, one of them came from international back-row forward Alan Quinlan who is retiring at the end of the season. Wings Simon Zebo and Doug Howlett grabbed the others, with Ronan O'Gara kicking the remainer of the points.
Leinster had things very easy in demolishing Glasgow. They had four tries from Shane Horgan, Gordon D'Arcy, Dominic Ryan and Kevin McLaughlin.
But coach Jo Schmidt expects a really tough semi-final against Ulster, stating: "We must guard against complacency. We have beaten them a few times but they did very well go go to Wales and beat the Dragons."
He's right. This was an excellent performance by Ulster who had two tries from the up and coming centre Nevin Spence and another by their South African back-row Pedrie Wannenburg.
Still, both Munster and Leinster will be expected to make it through the semi-finals, setting up another clash between these fierce rivals in the decider.
In the meantime, Leinster full-back Isa Nacewa has been named the Irish Rugby Union Players Association's Player of the Year. In doing so, the Auckland-born full-back became the first overseas player to receive the award.
Further encouraging news for the Heineken Cup finalists is the confirmation that Connacht wing Fionn Carr and second-row Damian Browne from Brive have joined them on one-year contracts. Carr, a product of Newbridge College, is one of the most exciting wings in the country just now.
Browne formerly played with Connacht and Northampton before joining Brive. His arrival will be welcome, especially as Nathan Hines is leaving Leinster at the end of the current season.
Bradley to coach Edinburgh
FORMER Irish scrumhalf Michael Bradley has been named as the new coach of Edinburgh.
Bradley was previously in charge of Connacht, a job he vacated at the end of last season. The Edinburgh position represents a great opportunity for the 48-yer-old who was a member of Ireland's 1985 Triple Crown winning side and featured in two World Cups.
Doyle boost for Trap
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND soccer manager Giovanni Trapattoni has received a boost with the confirmation that Kevin Doyle is expected to be fit for Wolves final two Premiership matches of the season.
Wolves manager Mick McCarthy stressed that Doyle was close to playing in the vital 3-1 Premier League success over West Brom on Sunday. The victory moved Wolves out of the bottom three in the table.
"We think he will be alright for next week." stated McCarthy. Further encouraging news for Trapattoni was that Shay Given was included in the Manchester City substitutes for their 2-1 defeat at Everton on Saturday.
The Republic of Ireland will feature in the Carling Nations Cup at the end of the month before taking on Macedonia in a 2012 Euro qualifier.
Rovers on top
SHAMROCK ROVERS have moved three points clear at the top of the Airtricity League Premier Division table following a 1-0 home victory over Sligo Rovers.
The all-important goal came in the first half from Karl Sheppard. Derry City occupy second place after they hammered UCD 7-0 at the Brandywell. Eamonn Zayed was very much the hero, scoring four of the goals.
Elsewhere, Bray Wanderers went down 1-0 at home to St Patrick's Athletic, Bohemians beat Drogheda United 1-0, and Dundalk comfortably got the better of Galway United 3-0.