Grace Walsh is immensely proud of the achievements of her famous brother but it is only natural that you grow weary of being introduced in somebody else’s context rather than your own writes Daragh Ó Conchuir.
Sunday presents an opportunity for Walsh to carve out her particular niche in Gaelic games history, as she lines out for Kilkenny against Galway in the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland senior camogie final.
It will be her first appearance at the highest echelon of her sport but she has the experience of an eight-time winner in Tommy to fall back on. While he doesn’t like to overdo it with the advice, she welcomes his input.
“I’d ask him the odd time” says Grace. “He’d be at my matches and if I thought I didn’t play well I’d ask him where did I go wrong, what I can improve on and all that stuff. He’s so experienced; I try and listen to him anyway.
“Even just eating right and sleeping right; even nerves, talking to him about what you should do to control them or whatever. You would try and copy him.”
She has tried not to think too much about what lies ahead because the last thing she wants to do is freeze on the big day. Generally, she is more nervous watching the lads play – “the legs would be going and the nails would be gone” – than she is playing. Tommy is the same when it comes to Grace’s games.
“It’s always tough looking at your own family playing, especially in the big games” he admits. “You’d be nervous hoping that everything goes well for the team and her. It’s going to be different on Sunday because it’s an All-Ireland final; a different experience. Hopefully it goes well for everyone.”
Grace is the only girl amongst the Walsh siblings. With four brothers and Kilkenny being their county, it was natural that she picked up her first hurley as early as any of them. There were no special dispensations and they ploughed into each other.
“There’d be cousins and friends in the few houses around and it would always be three-goals-and-in, or 10-points-in. That’s where you win. It was always teams – we never went one-on-one (and) I picked the teams!” laughs Tommy.
The sessions obviously paid dividends. Apart from Grace and Tommy, Martin is a former Kilkenny U21, while Padraig is on the county senior panel. Shane is just 17 but is showing plenty of potential too.
This week is about Grace though, and Tommy doesn’t think he can really prepare her for an All-Ireland final at Croke Park.
“Sometimes you’re nearly better off not knowing anything about it. I wouldn’t be giving her any advice unless she came asking about it. As any hurler will tell you, the first few times you go up to play in an All-Ireland are the easiest. You go out and you don’t know what’s ahead of you – you go out and hurl with abandon.”
Grace has played at HQ once before, against Dublin in a league game as part of the Spring Series.
“It was cool, but the pitch just felt like it was massive. It should help a little bit. I hope that we won’t freeze on the day because it’s Croke Park; at the end of the day it’s just another pitch. It’s not like there is going to be crazy crowds or anything like there would be for the hurling but hopefully it’ll just go well.”
It is staggering to reflect on the fact that Kilkenny haven’t won an All-Ireland at senior level since 1994. They had only annexed their first title 20 years earlier but that success in ’94 was their 12th. Nobody expected the run to stop.
When they reached the final in 2009, it was with a young team buoyed by underage success. That underage success has continued but it took until now to get back to Broadway.
“It’s crazy” elicits Grace, using one of her favourite words. “We’ve been so successful underage coming up along. We’ve been kind of building it up and this year we have a young team, I think there is only two players over 25 on our team.
“I don’t know (what happened in previous years). People going away and management, I don’t know. Last year wasn’t really a great year for us because everyone was gone away on J1s but this year everyone is back and we have a new management from outside the county and I think everyone of us just really wanted it this year.”
Niall Williams and Graham Dillon are the joint managers who have had such a big impact. The players have responded to their professionalism.
“Their organisation is crazy. Everything is done to a tee, and it’s just brilliant. It’s great to see and everyone is getting along with the boys, looking up to them and listening to them. It’s going good.”
They got to the semi-final of the league but losing by five points to Wexford in the semi-final was a bit of disappointment.
Soon afterwards though, they defeated the All-Ireland champions in the Leinster final and that lit the blue touch paper.
“I think (it gave us) a great boost winning that Leinster final because we hadn’t won it in so long, and especially to beat Wexford. We kind of needed to get over Wexford I think; we were at that stage where we hadn’t beaten them in a few years.
“It was just such a great feeling to win and you just noticed the camp then that everyone was really happy and focussed on the championship. You knew that having beaten the All-Ireland champions then you could be All-Ireland champions yourself.”
Just one step away now.