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Brian Dowling celebrates at the final whistle of the 2020 All-Ireland final.
Brian Dowling celebrates at the final whistle of the 2020 All-Ireland final.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

From 'strange' 2020 All-Ireland win to 'flat' 2021, galvanised Kilkenny back on biggest stage

Brian Dowling has steered the Cats to their eighth decider in 10 years.
Aug 5th 2022, 7:00 AM 4,075 0

YEARS OF ALL-IRELAND hurt erased at an eerily empty Croke Park.

Kilkenny’s 2020 O’Duffy Cup triumph came in the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the top of the mountain reached at the end of Brian Dowling’s first season in the hot-seat.

“It was strange,” the Cats camogie manager recalls, “but looking back, it probably suited us because there was huge pressure going into that game. We had lost three finals in-a-row, to lose four in-a-row would have been absolutely disastrous.

“Without having the crowd there it did not really build up the occasion and I think it just took the pressure off the girls.

“To lose that [final], I don’t know whether some of them would still be playing today, I just think there was so much baggage there. That year, there was a cloud over us and it finally lifted after that match.”

That cloud may have lifted, but restrictions stayed firmly in place for quite some time. 

“Then Covid hit again and I think we didn’t see the girls for four months after that because everything was in lockdown again,” Dowling continues.

“When we came back from 2020 it was very, very strange, we were All-Ireland champions but we never got to celebrate it properly. Last year was a challenge to be honest, I think we were flat for most of the year. We were very competitive, we only lost two games by a point to Galway and Cork but we just never really hit our top form.”

The curtain came down at the semi-final stage, the Rebels last-gasp one-point winners; “a serious team” and unquestionably better on the day, Dowling concedes.

No strangers to one another, they renew rivalries in Sunday’s All-Ireland final. An eighth final in 10 years for Kilkenny, just two of those ending in glory.

This was the aim of the start of the season: to get back on the biggest stage on the showpiece day of the camogie calendar. 

Reflecting on the earlier days of 2022, Dowling says there was “a new lease of life” in the set-up.

katie-power-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Power hour: heartfelt celebrations at the final whistle of Kilkenny's semi-final win over Galway. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Slowly but surely, form and rhythm were found through a rebuild and restructure, having lost some big names like Colette Dormer, Anna Farrell, Anne Dalton (retirement), Davina Tobin (pregnant), and Meghan Farrell (travels). And that was before injury struck.

“I think five of the backs from last year against Cork are gone through injury, travelling, retirements and things like that, pregnancy, there is lot going on there,” Dowling points out.

“Look some girls made up their own mind but I suppose the ones we think of is Aoife and Kellyann Doyle, they did their cruciates this year, two sisters. That was not their choice, they wanted to be here, unfortunate for them that they are gone.

“It’s tough but I suppose maybe if you have the same team all the time, things gets a bit stale. There’s a bit of freshness there, I think we had that in 2020 when we lost players as well and we brought in new girls.

“They were brilliant for us that year and it is the same thing this year, the new girls have stepped up. I think the experience girls feed off that new energy that these new girls bring into the group.”

There have been other tough times and obstacles to through the year, grief playing a big factor amongst the group.

Paul Shefflin, the brother of coach, Tommy, passed away at just 40, and three weeks later, Dowling’s uncle, Oliver Brennan died in a house fire, from which his other uncle, Dom, was lucky to escape. 

Players suffered other personal losses around that same time, with Dowling noting in an interview last month: ”It was great to have the camogie. It was something that we could cling on to.”

He echoes those sentiments now, the devastating events of this year and incredible support of the GAA community on his mind as he’s initially asked about the fierce rivalry and remarkable respect between Kilkenny and Cork.

claire-phelan-and-brian-dowling-with-matthew-twomey-and-ashling-thompson Claire Phelan, Dowling, Matthew Twomey and Ashling Thompson at last week's All-Ireland final launch. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I have a lot of respect for this Cork team,” he explains. “I had a personal tragedy during the year, my uncle died and I must say a lot of the Cork players and Matthew [Twomey] himself contacted me and offered their condolences. That meant a huge lot at the time and they did not have to do that.

“It was tough, obviously Tommy Shefflin’s brother Paul passed away and that was a similar time. In fairness the camogie really helps things and the girls being there has been really helpful to go and train and stuff like that helps take your mind off it.

“Obviously to win an All-Ireland would really top off the whole year for us.

“That will never go away, especially for the likes of Tommy who lost his brother, that will never go away but I’m sure it will help in a small way if we get over the line against Cork.

“For 60 minutes on the pitch, we will be rivals but we will shake hands after and hopefully the best team wins.”

The mood on Noreside last week was “strange,” Dowling admitted, with the dust settling on the official end of Brian Cody’s remarkable reign.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise with murmurs and rumours spreading, but the Kilkenny county board statement confirmed the news once and for all. The end of an era like no other, with Derek Lyng announced as Cody’s successor last night.

“Look, he has left a huge legacy, 24 years, I don’t think we will see the likes of it again,” Dowling pays tribute, “and obviously what he has won and what he has achieved, the standards he has set for Kilkenny hurling has been unbelievable.

“There are clubs and counties that look at Kilkenny’s template of work rate and every team uses that. I think that is what Brian has done and I wish him all the best for the future.”

denise-gaule-celebrates-with-ann-downey Ann Downey will forever be a part of Kilkenny camogie - here she is celebrating last month's semi-final win with Denise Gaule. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There are some parallels to Dowling taking the reins from the legendary Ann Downey, though the O’Loughlin Gaels man remembers the transition as a smooth one as he had coached on her backroom team.

“I didn’t really feel the pressure taking over from Ann,” he concedes. “The pressure was that we had lost three finals in-a-row and you were coming into a team that had lost three finals, what would happen if you had lost four?”

“That is where the pressure was really coming from, Ann was very good to me. She stepped down after the final against Galway and she asked me to take over. She felt I was the right person for the job, I didn’t have to think twice about it.

“I was mad to get back involved and probably put my own stamp on things and try and drag it on from there.”

Drag it on, he certainly has. Another big day on the horizon, where it’s “hugely important” to get over the line once more.

“We can’t change the past, we have lost a lot of finals and we can’t change that,” Dowling concludes. “We can only change what is ahead of us now on 7 August and that is the one we are targeting.

“Look, it is a dream to win an All-Ireland and to win an All-Ireland in front of supporters and to celebrate properly, that is what everyone wants to do and that is what we hope we can do on Sunday.” 

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Emma Duffy


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