After all the retirements, the injuries, the withdrawals, the rank bad luck and the tragedies, Kilkenny are All-Ireland senior camogie champions again. It’s been some journey, maybe the most challenging of manager Brian Dowling’s entire sporting career.
If there is such a thing as karma, perhaps it finally swung around in Kilkenny’s favour in the closing minutes at Croke Park as they came from two points down to topple Cork with a 58th-minute Sophie O’Dwyer goal followed by a stoppage time Denis Gaule match-winning point. Champions again, but boy did they wipe sweat from their brows and, at times, tears from their cheeks throughout that game and that season.
“The off the field stuff was very tough,” said Dowling. “A lot of stuff happened in March and April, obviously our coach Tommy Shefflin’s brother, Paul, passed away. Then my own uncle passed away in a house fire.
“Aoife Prendergast’s grandad passed away. Ciara Phelan’s grandad passed away, and everything just happened in a couple of weeks and then to have Kellyann Doyle and Aoife Doyle’s cruciate injuries on top of that.
“It just seemed that everything was going wrong. I don’t know, we just sort of galvanised ourselves, that team spirit within the group and just that never say die attitude, you stay going and stay going.
“We said it on Friday night in the team meeting, ‘Look, the amount of things that were thrown at this group this year and here we are, still fighting, still in with a chance of winning an All-Ireland’. I’m just so proud of them that they were able to get through all of that and whatever went on.
“We had new girls stepping up, the likes of Tiffanie Fitzgerald who went up and scored the first point of the game, she’s a corner-back, 19 years of age. That’s just incredible. That sums up the whole thing I suppose.”
Dowling referenced Grace Walsh too and her indomitable spirit. Back in 2020, when Kilkenny previously won the All-Ireland, she slotted over a terrific point from the wing in the closing minutes to help turn the screw on Galway. This time around, with injuries and retirements forcing Dowling to restructure his defence, Walsh was asked to forsake her attacking instincts and to play at number three, a challenge she met head on.
It was her powerful run out of defence and pass to cousin Miriam Walsh that drew the 62nd-minute free that Gaule converted to secure the win.
“If you heard Grace Walsh speaking in the dressingroom the last few days, it just put the hairs standing up on the back of your neck,” said Dowling.
“It was unbelievable. She couldn’t breathe coming in at half-time, she got a belt in her stomach. That girl just won’t back down from anything. I’d like to mention them all, there’s just so many characters there. Different ones stepped up at different times. That’s what it’s about.”
The two Walshes were among a core group of experienced players who experienced three All-Ireland final defeats in a row between 2017 and 2019. The first two of those were one-point losses to Cork, who also defeated Kilkenny in a semi-final last year. This time around it was the Cork players who stood on the Croke Park pitch looking up at the celebrations in the Hogan Stand, ashen-faced.
Not that revenge was the motivation for Dowling and Kilkenny, or anything like it. It was more to do with wanting to honour their supporters who weren’t able to celebrate or be part of the 2020 success because of the pandemic restrictions at the time.
“We said it all year, the message was that we wanted to win this for the Kilkenny people, for our families and friends,” said Dowling.
“They didn’t get to celebrate with us in 2020 but they were there in 2017 when we lost, they were there in 2018 when we lost, they were there in 2019 when we lost.
“Last year it was our plan to win for them but we didn’t get there. This year it was our mission to win an All-Ireland in front of Kilkenny people. I thought we had a huge crowd up supporting us and we’re just so happy to bring the O’Duffy Cup home.”
Between the camogie success and Derek Lyng’s appointment, it’s been a tidy few days of business for Kilkenny. It’ll take a while for the gloom to lift in Cork. The senior defeat came immediately after the county intermediates’ 0-11 to 0-13 final loss to Galway.
“In the 55th minute, I looked up at the clock and you see that you are two points up and you are kind of saying, ‘Is this our day?’” said Cork senior manager Matthew Twomey.
“We are still trying to do the right things and then you get a little break like that with their goal and then their gander is up and it was very hard to claw it back. Fair play to Kilkenny, they are an awesome team when they get into a position like that.”
Cork, inevitably, will rue the slow start. They conceded the first six points of the game, similar to their terrible start against Waterford in the semi-final.
“There’s no logical reason for it, we thought it was a freak thing when it happened in the Waterford game,” said Twomey. “Then to go two points up late on, you should be finishing out the game.”