Between the carefully crafted Kilkenny County Council notice of rolling road closures in the city, the open top bus, civic reception and big screen, you could tell this wasn’t Kilkenny’s first rodeo. Few do homecoming celebrations quite like them, principally because few have had so much practice.
Brian Dowling and his camogie panel got the full treatment yesterday evening which they’d missed out upon in 2020 when winning their last All-Ireland at the height of the pandemic restrictions.
There was nothing guaranteed about this lap of honour though, even if Kilkenny did finish the season unbeaten in all competitions.
Dowling has spoken openly about the tragedies that have impacted upon the panel this season, as well as the injuries and the retirements.
They dug deep on Sunday to mine out a 15th All-Ireland win, denying Cork with a late surge, but like all the best sporting successes, the real victories took place far from the glare and publicity of final day.
Like up in Dunloy, back in June, a Round 3 group game against Antrim that was supposed to be a cakewalk.
“Our backs were to the wall, down to 14 players, only two points up at half-time playing against a gale force wind,” said Dowling. “These girls came out with a six-point victory. People probably would have looked at it and said maybe we didn’t play well that day but I left Antrim and I knew we had a team.”
Laura Murphy scored an important point that day and went on to enjoy her first All-Ireland success as a regular, the highlight of her campaign the 1-1 she sniped against Galway in the semi-final win.
“It was just like Brian said, ‘Keep the faith’,” said Murphy of the team’s motto. “We have been saying it all year, just keep the faith and if you go down two points, three points, whatever it is, we know that we have the capabilities to pull it back.”
Murphy was a beneficiary of sorts of the challenges and difficulties that Kilkenny have faced. Retirements — Collete Dormer and Davina Tobin called it a day — injuries — the two Doyle sisters suffered cruciate setbacks — and the unavailability of Meighan Farrell forced Dowling into a defensive rethink this year. Murphy, a sub in the 2020 final win, became one of his go-to players. When he needed to mix things up on final day, he handed her number seven again but slotted her in at midfield.
“We always said we’re not a panel of 15 players, we’re a panel of all the players that come on and all the girls that are on the bench,” said Murphy, using substitute Sophie O’Dwyer’s decisive 58th minute goal as evidence for her claim.
It was Kilkenny’s first senior camogie homecoming since 2016, when they last beat Cork in a final. In 2017 and 2018 they lost finals to Cork and there was an agonising semi-final defeat last year too.
Maybe that’s why veterans of all those games like Grace and Miriam Walsh, Claire Phelan and Gaule fought so courageously on Sunday. Full-back Grace Walsh came out of one tackle early on holding her neck. At half-time she was finding it difficult to breathe. Yet it was her, part of the team almost a decade ago that lost to Galway in 2013, that helped set up the winning score.
“We’ve had a few tough defeats to Cork in particular,” said Murphy. “It’s heartbreaking when you put in all that work. I don’t think anyone outside of the group realises the work that goes into getting this far and actually getting over the line.
“To win by a single point ... we’ve had a few close defeats by a point so it is that little bit sweeter when the margin is so tight because it could go either way. Just so grateful that we got that bit of luck.”
Gaule had suffered her fair share of heartache at the hands of Cork too, experiencing final defeats to them in 2014, 2017 and 2018.
“All I can think of with her is hard work and oh my God did she put that in, she was unbelievable,” said Murphy of the team’s gamebreaker. “She might have missed a free or two but I think there was one stage over on the right hand side when she got two or three blocks in a row. She just epitomises everything we believe in, hard work and that it’s never over until the final whistle goes. She was up and down the pitch all afternoon. I thought she was phenomenal.”