Kevin Downes counting his blessings after cruciate woe
By John Harrington
Na Piarsaigh’s Kevin Downes will take a moment to appreciate the occasion when he runs out onto the Croke Park pitch for Saturday’s AIB All-Ireland Club SHC Final against Cuala.
Sidelined for nearly a year after rupturing a cruciate ligament on July 30, 2016, the chance to play in an All-Ireland Final makes the long and sometimes lonely rehab he endured worthwhile.
It was only when hurling was taken away from him that he truly appreciated just how much it meant.
That's why he’s savoured every minute of every match he’s played during Na Piarsaigh’s path to Saturday’s Final.
“Ah yeah, it's been brilliant,” Downes told GAA.ie “The cruciate is a fairly lonely road. It's difficult, a lot of rehab, a lot of work on your own.
“You'd have your exercise to do and you might be doing it on the side of the field and the boys are out doing their hurling session. To come back from that, it was brilliant.
“It was very satisfying for myself. I suppose when you're playing and you don't have that, you can take certain things for granted, maybe. That really gives you an appreciation for it definitely. It's a good thing to look back on as well.
“You might have some days where X, Y, and Z will happen but it's good motivation. It's a good grounding. It's not a good thing to happen, obviously, but when it does happen it can have its positives. Unless you go through it, you don't understand fully the long road that it is.
“You see Bernard Brogan there at the moment and Aron Shanagher there in Clare and even though you don't know of these fellas, you'd nearly wince for them, you'd be gutted for them.
“It's great, obviously, to come back and be looking forward to an All-Ireland final. Coming back from that is great, very satisfying.”
During his rehab he left no stone unturned to ensure he could make a full recovery as quickly as possible, even if it meant trying some unorthodox methods.
“I saw a video of Sonny Bill Williams, the All Black,” said Downes. “He had a torn Achilles or something but he had a video up, he was on a rowing machine but he had the bad leg taped onto a skateboard.
“I sent it onto Darragh Droog, our strength and conditioning coach and said 'What do you think?' He said, 'Yeah come in the next morning'.
I was inside in Delta Altitude Centre doing that taped up to the skateboard. There was a spinning class going on in the rest of the room.I could see them all looking at me, 'What is this? What is this clown at?'
“I suppose at that stage, you'd be mad to do anything to just get a bit of sweat up to feel normal again to get back doing a bit of training.”
Downes has made a full recovery from his ruptured cruciate if his performance against Slaughtneil in the All-Ireland semi-final is anything to go by.
After the Limerick were reduced to 13-men early in the second-half after the dismissals of Conor Boylan and Tommy Grimes they looked in serious trouble.
But Downes and his colleagues in the Na Piarsaigh attack worked their socks off to win ball after ball despite being outnumbered by Slaughtneil defenders.
And once Downes put his team five points ahead with a well taken goal, they never looked like losing.
“It was very satisfying,” he said. “I suppose, first half we were very disappointed with the way we played. We didn't get out of the blocks at all.
“Half-time we went in and got a dressing down from the management and we knew we had to up our game, big time. Even at the start of the second half, we were starting to hurl much better.
“We were getting into full flow, I suppose, really. We got a couple of points and then, obviously, the two boys got sent-off. That really snapped us into reality. It was very satisfying to come out of it. Going up to Parnell Park, it's a tough place to play hurling.
“It's tight, compact and in fairness, Slaughtneil were very, you know, physical and tough on the day. It was one where you got into the dressing room after and there wasn't manic celebrations. It was more relief and, I guess, 'Thank God we got over that one'.”
Downes admits it’s ‘a dream scenario’ for hurling supporters to have the 2017 All-Ireland Champions Cuala facing off against the 2016 All-Ireland champions Na Piarsaigh in this year’s Final.
He knows that they simply can’t afford the sort of slow start they had in the semi-final against Slaughtneil against the reigning champions this weekend.
“Definitely. They're a serious team. So, if you don't get out of the blocks with them, you could be left behind.
“It's just a case of everyone being tuned in and obviously it's an All-Ireland final so you'd hope everyone is going to be up for it and hunger and things won't be an issue. You do need to get out of the blocks quick and you do need to get off to a quick start and not leave this game pass you by.
They're a very talented team, they're All-Ireland champions. They're going to pose a huge challenge and having the two previous champions it's set up to be a great game.
“We have to step aside from that and take it at face value of what it is, an All-Ireland final. We can't be getting involved in the hustle and bustle, we just have to go out with a job to do and have the game-face on.”
A second All-Ireland title in three years would be a remarkable achievement for a Na Piarsaigh team that’s still dominated by hurlers in their early to mid-twenties.
They should be a force for years to come, but Downes intends to play Saturday’s Final like it’s his last one.
“There's absolutely no guarantees you'll get back here again,” he said. “As the saying goes, have to make hay while the sun shines.
“You have a chance here to win an All-Ireland and you have to do everything you can to win it. As I've said, it's very hard to get out of Limerick and Munster.
“Okay, we've had a bit of success there recently but there's no guarantees we'll be back there again. It's year on year, game on game so you'll have to take every game on its merit.
“God knows what's down the track with our group in terms of injuries and lads going away. Who knows what'll happen. We've a chance now and you've to do your very, very best to take it because no-one knows what tomorrow's going to bring.”