A new lease of life for Kilkenny in 2022
By Paul Keane
Back when Brian Dowling was installed as Kilkenny camogie manager in late 2019, he immediately felt the pressure.
Not so much on him but a pressure over the entire group of players who had suffered three consecutive Glen Dimplex All-Ireland final defeats in 2017, 2018 and 2019 under Ann Downey.
"To lose four-in-a-row would have been absolutely disastrous," said Dowling, who enjoyed immediate success with a final defeat of Galway in 2020, releasing a pressure valve within his panel.
"To lose that final, I don't know whether some of them would still be playing today, I just think there was so much baggage there. That year, there was a cloud over us and it finally lifted after that match."
Two years, or to be more precise, 20 months, after that mid-December breakthrough in 2020, Kilkenny are back at the final stage. This time they will face Cork and this time there is every likelihood they will party hard if they win.
Pandemic restrictions were in place for their last win which meant they never truly celebrated it.
"I think we didn't see the girls for four months after that because everything was in lockdown again," said former Kilkenny hurler Dowling. "When we came back in 2021, it was very, very strange. We were All-Ireland champions but we never got to celebrate it properly. Last year was a challenge to be honest, I think we were flat for most of the year. We were competitive, we only lost two games by a point to Galway and Cork but we just never really hit our top form.
"Coming back this year then, it kind of has been like a new lease of life really. We struggled a little bit in the league for form and in challenge games and things like that to find our rhythm but look, we have kind of set up a new team, we had to restructure it from last year and it just kind of fell into place and things are going well now so far."
Seven of the starters from that 2020 final win are unavailable to Dowling now for various reasons.
"I think five of the backs from last year against Cork are gone through injury, travelling, retirements and things like that, pregnancy, there is a lot going on there," he said.
"Some girls made up their own minds (to leave) but I suppose the ones we think of are Aoife Doyle and Kellyann Doyle, they did their cruciates this year, two sisters. That was not their choice, they wanted to be here. Unfortunately for them, they are gone."
Because of all that change, Dowling didn't have a true sense of his team and its capability until they travelled to Kenny Park to face Galway in the final round of group games in the Championship and earned a gutsy draw.
"We knew leaving Athenry we had a decent team and we were able to put it up to Galway," he said.
"Then we got Dublin in the quarter-final, got Galway again and to beat Galway in the semi-finals was great because we have a lot of new girls and that gave us a bit of confidence going into the final now."
Kilkenny are slight favourites to capture the O'Duffy Cup for the 15th time on Sunday but Cork have the superior record in finals, beating the Leinster outfit in four finals since 2009 alone. Kilkenny's one final win over Cork in that period came in 2016.
"We can't change the past, we have lost a lot of finals and we can't change that," said Dowling. "We can only change what is ahead of us now on the 7th of August and that is the one we are targeting. Look, it is a dream to win an All-Ireland and to win an All-Ireland in front of supporters and to celebrate properly, that is what everyone wants to do and that is what we hope we can do on Sunday."