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Dublin: 16 °C Sunday 12 July, 2020

'A few of us were watching the video the next day, tears were flowing out of our eyes'

Kilkenny star Grace Walsh on a beautiful family moment, bouncing back in 2020 and her undying love for camogie.

A HEARTWARMING MOMENT which summed up what it’s all about.

Tommy Walsh and his father, Mickey’s, embrace at the final whistle of the Kilkenny intermediate hurling final showed just how much this meant. Nine All-Ireland senior titles with Kilkenny and nine All-Stars, but this county title was perhaps that bit more special. After years and years of heartbreak, Tullaroan were finally crowned champions.

The emotion on show after tasting club success was nothing short of amazing, with the Walsh family central to it all. The four brothers — Tommy, Padraig, Shane and Martin — all played instrumental parts in Tullaroan bridging the 25-year gap for county glory, and their sister, Grace, ensures the mood is still sky-high in the west Kilkenny village.

“I don’t know if the celebrations will ever die down,” the Cats camogie star laughed at the All-Star Tour launch in Croke Park today.

“It was incredible for the lads. I felt like I was a mother of four boys going out on the pitch after the final whistle.”

grace-walsh Grace Walsh at today's All-Star Tour launch. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

What about the beautiful moment between her father and her older brother? Grace’s smile says it all when it comes up in conversation.

“A few of us were watching the video the next day, tears were flowing out of our eyes,” she says. “It was nice because your parents, they bring you up, teach you right and wrong. They are the ones that see all the effort and the commitment that you put in.

“It’s for them that you’re doing it. They are so proud of you and you see it in their faces — you can see it in the video, how proud my dad was.

“My brother, Padraig, showed Daddy the video the next day. Straight away, Daddy was just like, ‘Tommy was just the closest one to me.’ He really felt bad, that Tommy was the one he got the video with. It was great.”

“People don’t see what the lads do in the background,” Grace, a 2018 All-Star herself, added. “Our club, it’s so close-knit and everybody always wants to see the next person do well.

“The effort the lads have been putting in over the last few years and the heartache they went through last year in the county final, to go out and win it then this year was incredible.

“I don’t think they’ll want to stop with that. I think they’d like to play in Croke Park. As a club, that would be good.”

Grace has been representing Tullaroan with distinction and flying the flag at HQ herself over the past few years.

The 26-year-old’s life revolves around camogie. A nurse in St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin, Walsh commutes up and down for training: “I’m not going to lie, it’s hard; sometimes it can be mentally and physically draining, but I do it for the love of the game.”

It’s worth it all for moments like the one her brother and father shared. For All-Ireland titles like the one she was so central to under Ann Downey in 2016. Even through the three heartbreaking All-Ireland final losses in-a-row the past three years.

ann-downey Former Kilkenny manager Ann Downey. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Now, with 2020 vision, Kilkenny are facing into a change of management.

“Personally, I’m disappointed that Ann Downey has gone,” Walsh frowns at first. “We had a good relationship, she had a good relationship with every player. I think everybody respected her a lot and she’s a big influence on us.

“But like, the management hasn’t changed too much. Brian [Dowling] is just stepping into her shoes. To be honest, they were even roles all last year. Everyone respects Brian to the highest degree, and he is incredible. So approachable and I think every player always feels like they can ask him anything, and that’s nice.

“We have two new lads in with us this year; we have Tommy Shefflin and Philly Larkin. I’d say they’ll be good additions. Ray Challenor is still there from last year, Liam Egan left which is also very disappointing. He’s a brilliant trainer, he did a lot of strength and conditioning, all the winter work which was pretty tough. But Jesus, he’s some man; he used to nearly do it with us.

“The two new lads will be brilliant. Tommy Shefflin, he’s with WIT, he’s with the Ballyhale hurlers, what more could you want? And then Philly Larkin, an ex-Kilkenny defender… I’m sure they’ll bring some great things to the camp this year.”

“That’s just Ann Downey all over,” Walsh smirks when she’s asked about how appreciative the side are all over for the easy transition their former manger created. 

12-time All-Ireland winner Downey brought her successor Dowling into her backroom team with the view that he could follow in her footsteps.

“She’s so clever. She’s always thinking ahead and always thinking about the bigger picture and about the team. She always wants what’s best for the team. She was never going to leave unless she knew that we were in safe hands.”

Downey will never be too far away though, Walsh insists. 

grace-walsh Walsh in action in this year's All-Ireland final. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Especially not when her two main sidekicks, Angela, her twin sister, and Breda Holmes are still at the heart of it all. A word for the key duo first, before another insight to the legend that is Ann Downey.

“Angela and Breda… Jesus, they look after us so well and they’re the people that are never mentioned, but they’re the two that do the most for us,” Walsh smiles. “You’d never lose anything; no jacket, no sliotar, no nothing is lost when them two are around.

“And sure, I’m sure Ann will be in the background somewhere. When she brought me in first, I was only 16 or 17. I had her for two years as manager. She left then for a couple of years but she was still there at every game supporting us.

“She bleeds the black and amber, that’s just the way she is.”

Similar could be said of Walsh, who nearly sends shivers up your spine as she speaks about herself and her team-mates picking themselves up, dusting themselves off and getting ready to bounce back after yet another gut-wrenching September showpiece defeat.

Others would just throw in the towel, and stay rooted in Dublin rather than putting in ridiculous miles week on week for the Kilkenny cause. 

But not Walsh. 

2019 ultimately ended in disappointment, but now, it’s all about going again. 

“This is it,” she nods. “We go back every year for a reason; we all have the same goal.

“Obviously at the end of the year, you want to be All-Ireland champions. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. It’s not something that you should dwell on, because you can’t change it, you can’t change the past. You just have to focus on the present and on the future, and going again.

grace-walsh-amy-oconnor-and-sarah-healy At today's launch with Amy O'Connor and Sarah Healy. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I think that’s what makes great teams: lifting themselves back up. One thing that we got to look at this year was the Dublin ladies football team. They lost three-in-a-row, and now they’re after winning three-in-a-row. That’s something I mentioned to the girls after they won, I was like, ‘Let’s look at them and let’s take something from it.”

Almost embarrassed when she’s asked when she developed that admirable attitude, Walsh can’t exactly put a finger on it at first. But then she does.

It’s simple, really.

“Just growing up, you have that attitude or you don’t,” she says. “If you’re competitive and you want to play, if you have the love for the game, you’ll always want to go back – you always want more, you always want to win. One is never enough.

“I remember when Kilkenny were winning the hurling year after year, people were like, ‘Oh would they give somebody else a chance. Will they ever get sick of it?’ The answer is no because you never sick of that winning feeling.

“You don’t train really hard and put in huge commitment every year to just take part. You’re there to win.”

That, Grace Walsh is.

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Emma Duffy

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