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From Kilkenny hurling and Munster rugby to the Tipperary football physio

A European Cup winner will be on the sideline with Tipperary today.

BEFORE THERE EVER was Shannon and Munster for Ian Dowling, there was Kilkenny.

And born into that environment meant there was hurling.

He’s an O’Loughlin Gaels man, his sporting influences moulded in Kilkenny city. He knocked around on club underage teams that included players like Brian Hogan, a multiple All-Ireland medal collector, and Brian Dowling (no relation), who hit the injury-time winner in the 2002 league final for Kilkenny.

Rugby may have consumed him in a Munster career that spanned 2005 to 2011 but for Dowling, Kilkenny continued to tug at the heartstrings, as he witnessed the unparalleled reign of success that Brian Cody has presided over.

“I would have always followed Kilkenny the whole way up. Being from Kilkenny, you’re nearly born with a hurley in your hand. I’d have always travelled to all the games.

“That would have been growing up and then even the time when I was playing professionally with Munster, I would have travelled to all the Kilkenny matches where possible. I always got great satisfaction and enjoyment from it.”

This summer he’s been getting satisfaction and enjoyment out of having a ringside seat for one of the most captivating GAA stories. The Kilkenny hurlers may be returning for another Liam MacCarthy tilt next month but Dowling has been immersed in Tipperary football, a squad that today in Croke Park ends the county’s 81-year wait for an All-Ireland senior semi-final place when they square off against Mayo.

In September 2010, Dowling first picked up a troublesome hip injury in a game for Munster against the Ospreys. By the following April, that problem refused to quit and he was forced to hoist the white flag, a promising career brought to a shuddering halt by the woes of injury.

It was tough but he had been bracing himself for a life post rugby. His current role as a physio was not a leftfield selection when retirement hit him.

“I did Sports Science in UL first and foremost. So that was kind of before I even got a contract with Munster. That would have been 2005.

“I was actually due to do physio the following year up in Trinity and then as it all panned out, I got offered the development contract with Munster so that kind of put the physio on hold.

“But then I started making plans while I was still playing. I was actually in my first year of physio (in UL) when I picked up the injury.”

IDowling Source: Twitter - @DowlingPhysio

He studied in UL and graduated and now runs ‘Ian Dowling Physio’ in Raheen in Limerick city. Dowling rose to prominence with Shannon before his days with Munster and in recent years has gone back to help out the club. And it was a Shannon link that paved the way in the dying embers of 2015 for him to embark on his current role with Tipperary.

“It originally came about with Johnny Lacey, the referee. Johnny’s brother Brian was obviously involved with Tipperary.

“I sat down with Liam (Kearns). We talked through both our expectations and it went from there. From a GAA point of view, it was something I was definitely keen on getting involved in.

“The more experience you get with different sports with injuries and the mechanisms of injuries, the better. You’re dealing with different beasts altogether.”

Liam Kearns celebrates Ian Dowling (background) after Tipperary's Munster semi-final win over Cork Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He joined the inter-county arena last winter and had to adapt fast to the rigours of inter-county football. It was a chaotic time for Tipperary, as they tried to assemble a squad stripped of figures due to the lure of other sports, the setbacks of injury and the enticement of travel.

“They were all quite receptive to everything we looked to put in place,” outlines Dowling.

“The hard work at the start of the season getting up to speed with guys injuries, past injuries and trying to get them screened so we had a comprehensive insight into the players and their medical backgrounds. I think that’s standing to the injury profile of the squad now.”

In his rugby career Dowling was unfortunate enough to know intimately what life on a treatment table was like. That informs his current approach.

“I suppose first and foremost it’s about having the trust with the players. That’s the most difficult thing with any injury.

“It’s one thing treating an injury, it’s another thing treating a player that’s coming up to a deadline, whether it could be an All-Ireland quarter-final or whatever.

“You want to have their confidence in you. There is a certain amount of empathy you have with the players. You can appreciate the demands and expectations that they probably have.

“As a player I was unfortunately injured a lot. That was the biggest thing that shaped my own injury approach, an expectation of myself and then of the physio.

“So I carried that on to when I’m dealing with a player.”

The Tipperary players Dowling is working with have been a receptive bunch. For many of them, Munster rugby was a tale that caught their imagination during days when the province were a towering presence on the European landscape. Dowling was a symbol of that.

“In fairness to Ian, he gives great advice,” says Kevin O’Halloran.

“When you’re injured, he just keeps believing in you. He’ll say, “I’ll get you back ready for this.”

“And he puts us through our paces as well. Ian would often talk to us and ask us if there’s anything we want help with or anything he can help us with.”

Kevin O'Halloran celebrates the final whistle Tipperary footballer Kevin O'Halloran Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“He’s a brilliant relationship with all of the lads,” remarks Michael Quinlivan.

“He’s a great presence in the dressing room. When you have someone like that who’s played on the biggest stage, you’d have great respect for that.

“He brought a bit of the rugby celebrations in after we played Cork, he arrived in to the dressing room with a couple of drinks for all the lads in the dressing room which was a nice touch I think. All the lads appreciated that and it really added to whole occasion as well.

“Through my teenage years, I was always watching Munster. They were underdogs for those games as well so we can probably relate a lot.

“Obviously just someone there you can bounce ideas off. It’s great. I know from talking to Seamus (Kennedy – Tipperary hurler) that Denis (Leamy) has been a great addition to their management team as well.”

Michael Quinlivan celebrates after scoring a goal Tipperary footballer Michael Quinlivan Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

Denis Leamy Former Munster forward Denis Leamy Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

2016 has been a rollercoaster ride for Tipperary football with some exhilarating highs. It takes Dowling an hour from work in Limerick to Thurles and he’s been making that trek to Dr Morris Park or Thurles a few times a week since the early January. It’s been a role he has embraced and after being exposed to professional sport, the commitment made by a group of amateurs has left him genuinely astounded.

“That’s blown me away, the level of commitment from the panel of players. You’ve guys coming from Galway, Dublin, Cork and all the corners of Tipp.

“It’s a tremendous effort to be going when the easiest thing to do at times is to not go when the weather isn’t accommodating.

“It was pretty bleak back there earlier in the year with the weather conditions and guys can’t even hop the ball at training.

“But all those dark days make an All-Ireland semi-final possible. They’re a tremendous bunch. It’s been great, an unbelievable adventure to be honest.”

It’s tempting to suggest that journeying to late August and rubbing shoulders with the Croke Park elite was never a notion that Tipperary football countenanced at the outset of the year.

But Dowling’s outlook to sport never permits him to dismiss any lofty ambitions. Maybe that’s traced to his own playing days, he was part of a Munster setup that enthusiastically faced daunting challenges.

“One of the first things when I met the guys and I saw what some of them were doing on the pitch, anything was possible.

“One of the biggest impacts was probably losing players and not being sure what the actual squad was. When Liam came in, we were trying to get up to speed as quickly as we could and that took time.

“Once the squad was finalised, there’s a pretty impressive calibre of player there and more to come. I tend to be quite an optimist. I never put anything past a team that I tend to be involved in.”

That faith has been rewarded with stirring days in Thurles in June, Cavan in July and then the wonder of putting Galway away with plenty to spare in an All-Ireland quarter-final.

“Those days are really, really special,” says Dowling.

“I’ve been quite fortunate with Munster and that to be involved in some great wins. You’re just delighted, not just for the players but the guys that have been there in the backroom staff, that have felt every loss in the past as well.”

So a decade on from being stationed on the left wing, helping Munster to overcome Biarritz and make their European Cup breakthrough in Cardiff, Dowling is in new sporting territory again.

Munster players celebrate Ian Dowling celebrating Munster's 2006 win Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

On 4 September he’ll be shouting on his native county, a position in the heartland of Tipperary GAA failing to compromise his Kilkenny allegiances.

“There’s been plenty of sledging alright back home,” laughs.

“The one thing they’re all aware that I’ll have to step back when Kilkenny football and Tipp football meet in the championship!

“I don’t think that’s going to be on the horizon any time soon. I think we’re fortunate enough in that regard.

“It’s been a phenomenal experience. It’s so rare and that makes it all that bit more special.”

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Fintan O'Toole

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