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Brian Dowling: You saw the character – that was a big moment for me

Mon 28th Nov

Daragh Ó Conchúir

County, Latest

At the same time as a discussion was breaking out in Qatar about Leo Messi’s silk pyjamas, closer to home it was all about the Cats’ pyjamas as Kilkenny swept the boards at the Pwc Camogie All-Stars.

A little under three months after winning the Glen Dimplex All-Ireland title, the Noresiders returned to Croke Park on Saturday night to garner eight PwC All-Stars as well as the Pwc GPA Senior Player of the Year and Manager of the Year gongs, which went to Miriam Walsh and Brian Dowling.

After her heroics in the semi-final defeat of champions Galway, Aoife Norris was entrusted with the goalie’s jersey and along with the scorer of the match-turning goal in that game, Laura Murphy, is a first-time recipient. Fellow defenders, Grace Walsh and Claire Phelan were honoured a third time.

Julianne Malone marked her return from a three-year hiatus in Australia with her second All-Star, in attack, with Denise Gaule earning her sixth, the dynamic Katie Nolan a second and Miriam Walsh, like her cousin Grace, a third.

Cork were rewarded for their titanic efforts in the final with four places in the team via Libby Coppinger, debutant Saoirse McCarthy, Ashling Thompson and Katrina Mackey, who was winning her sixth award.

Waterford’s feat in reaching a semi-final for the first time in 1959 was marked by nods for Beth Carton and Lorraine Bray. Shauna Healy completely the line-up, the redoubtable Galwegian being listed at corner-back for the fourth year in succession.

Galway also supplied the Pwc GPA Intermediate Player of the Year, Lisa Casserly, while Dervla Cosgrove’s four-goal salvo in the All-Ireland final earned her the Premier Junior Player of the Year award.

Kilkenny went through the year undefeated in competitive fare but that stat actually masks a significant period of turmoil.

Off the field, Dowling, coach Tommy Shefflin and a number of the players suffered bereavements that rattled them. These came in the wake of the retirements of Davina Tobin and Collette Dormer, and Meighan Farrell going to Australia.

Then came the cruciate knee ligament injuries to the Doyle sisters, Kellyann and Aoife, with Kellyann falling foul of the curse a third time.

“At one point, off the pitch and on the pitch, everything that could go wrong was going wrong,” says Dowling, who was named Manager of the Year for the second time having also been honoured in 2020 having steered Kilkenny to All-Ireland success in his first season in charge. “Everybody, including myself, didn’t know where we were going.

“It’s funny now but last year’s All-Stars were on in March and we were actually playing a challenge match the same night against Waterford in Piltown. They beat us off the pitch by about 12 points. You’re kind of wondering where we are going and what’s going to happen.

“Clare beat us a few weeks later and scored 3-18 against us. You’re thinking, ‘Is there a way back here?’ But we stuck at it, changed the team around a bit, players got a bit of form, we started to win a couple of matches and it started to happen.”

It is in such times that managements earn their corn of course, and Miriam Walsh recalls that period.

“The management team were great,” says the full-forward. “A team beat us in a challenge match and I remember driving out of the pitch feeling, ‘Oh my God, we won’t see an All-Ireland,’ but they really stuck with us.

“I remember one night, it changed everything. Tommy Shefflin brought us into the dressing room, and Brian Dowling, and they just gave an exhibition of speeches. I think that was ten weeks away from it but they had faith in us.”

Walsh’s form had much to do with the renewal too.

“I worked hard this year, arriving at training early, working on my shooting and stuff. It goes to show, if you work hard, it’ll pay off,” notes the 27-year-old Tullaroan powerhouse, who was bringing the curtain down on a stellar year, deservedly named PwC Senior POTY a week after getting married.

The Leinster Championship was used to build momentum and the performance in that final against Dublin gave Dowling cause for hope. The draw in Athenry against Galway in the last group game of the All-Ireland Championship confirmed that they were where they needed to be but it was another game before that which illustrated that the intestinal fortitude that would be required when it was all on the line existed in spades.

“It was probably up in Antrim,” Dowling details. “It wasn’t our best performance. I think we’d played the previous four weeks and the matches were all over with 15, 20 minutes to go.

“But this match, we were two points up against the wind and Mary O’Connell had been sent off. Our backs were to the wall and we ended up winning by six. You saw the character. That was a big moment for me.

“You don’t really learn too much when you win by 10 or 11 points but these players were tested, they stood up to it. I knew then there was definitely something there to work with.”

How seriously Dowling takes his duty of care can be seen in the fact that he was sitting a suicide prevention course during the week, following an interaction he had had while coaching another team during the year.

Little wonder the players and supporters are so excited that he has opted to return, despite undoubtedly having had other offers. The same applies for the rest of the squad, still anxious for more success.

“I sit down at the end of every year and see do I have the hunger to stay going again and if I don’t, there’s no point me staying there, it’s not fair to the girls,” says Dowling, who will be entering a fourth campaign at the helm.

“You might think now is the right time to step away but it’s so enjoyable. And for me, Monday night when we came back to Kilkenny and see the crowd that was there for the homecoming was really special. So I said, ‘If you walk away from this now, you’ll probably regret it.’

“We won in 2020 and didn’t do back-to-back. It’s a very hard thing to do in any sport so that’s a motivation. But when 2023 starts, you’re at the bottom of the mountain again and you have to try climb up it. It’s a new challenge but we’ll just have to go at it again. The other teams will be trying to beat us and in January, we’ll all be at the same level and try do everything we can to reach the top of that mountain.”

Before that though is the last little reward, the holiday for which they raised the necessary funds themselves. As it turns out, they will be sharing it with another set of high achievers.

“We’re going early January. The fundraising went really well. People in Kilkenny were absolutely brilliant, really supportive. We’re going on a Caribbean cruise. The Limerick hurlers are on the same cruise I believe so we might take them on in a game of table tennis or something!”

They’ll be charging admission fees at the door.

PwC Camogie All-Stars: Aoife Norris (Kilkenny), Libby Coppinger (Cork), Grace Walsh (Kilkenny), Shauna Healy (Galway), Laura Murphy (Kilkenny), Claire Phelan (Kilkenny), Saoirse McCarthy (Cork), Ashling Thompson (Cork), Lorraine Bray (Waterford), Denise Gaule (Kilkenny), Beth Carton (Waterford), Julianne Malone (Kilkenny), Katie Nolan (Kilkenny), Miriam Walsh (Kilkenny), Katrina Mackey (Cork)

PwC Soaring Stars: Áine Graham (Antrim), Ciara Hickey (Galway), Ciara Donohoe (Galway), Ashling Moloney (Cork), Katie Manning (Galway), Lisa Casserly (Galway), Gráinne McNicholl (Derry), Jennifer Hughes (Galway), Emma Laverty (Antrim), Joanne Casey (Cork), Katie Gilchrist (Galway), Aoife Minogue (Meath), Dervla Cosgrove (Antrim), Niamh McPeake (Galway), Lauren Homan (Cork).

PwC GPA Camogie Player of the Year: Miriam Walsh (Kilkenny). Pwc GPA Intermediate POTY: Lisa Casserly (Galway). PwC GPA Premier Junior POTY: Dervla Cosgrove (Antrim)

PwC Camogie Manager of the Year: Brian Dowling (Kilkenny)

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