The Kilkenny players celebrate at the final whistle of the All-Ireland final victory over Galway. Picture: Sportsfile/David Fitzgerald
The harder you try the luckier you get. That was certainly the case for the Kilkenny camogie side as they won their first All-Ireland title since 2016.
After losing in championship deciders to Cork twice and Galway in 2017, 2018 and 2019, Kilkenny were certainly on a mission to achieve some long overdue success and that's how things transpired at a crisp Saturday evening in Croke Park on one of the final weekends before Christmas.
Prior to that December date with destiny things had looked so much different for the cats.
Brian Dowling was in his first year as Kilkenny boss after he took over from Anne Downey who oversaw the Ballyragget intermediate hurlers after a hugely successful spell as a manager and player with Kilkenny.
Kilkenny began the National League pretty slowly. With the likes of Katie Power and Kellyann Doyle sidelined with serious injuries and Anna and Meighan Farrell due to emigrate there was real doubts as to what the team could achieve.
Of course everything then changed when the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak occurred and camogie was put on the shelf for a couple of months.
The league, rather predictably, fell by the wayside but after the players returned to their clubs and completed the local championships, the appetite for the game soon returned and the Liberty Insurance All-Ireland camogie championship soon got the go ahead to return under the same structure as originally planned.
While the championship format was similar, it was one of the few things that had any familiarity about it as restrictions were firmly taking hold.
While up to 200 spectators were permitted to attend the club games, that was no longer the case for the inter-county action and it took a fair bit of getting used to for everyone involved.
While Katie Power unfortunately suffered a season-ending injury after originally returning, there was good news elsewhere for Brian Dowling with a couple of players abandoning prior plans to return to the panel and some other knocks beginning to clear up.
On the field, Kilkenny were one of the unfortunate ones to lose their intermediate side with no second teams permitted to compete in championship fare but the senior side were back in action as they faced into a group alongside Waterford, Limerick and senior championship newcomers Westmeath.
Of those three sides Waterford were expected to be the stiffest challenge and so it proved. Kilkenny needed all their experience to escape from Walsh Park with a 0-15 t0 0-8 victory that saw Denise Gaule and Anne Dalton lead the way in the scoring stakes.
Next up was a home game in John Lockes GAA club at Callan and a clash with Westmeath. The clash displayed the gulf in class in the competition as a free scoring Kilkenny side ran riot against a Westmeath team that had already caused a shock in defeating a weakened Limerick.
Miriam Walsh was the star of the show, netting a hat-trick of goals for Kilkenny as the home side made it two wins from two with a facile 6-23 to 1-7 success.
That victory all but sealed qualification to the semi-finals with a game to spare and with Limerick already eliminated the final group game was something of a dead rubber.
The clash turned out to be a rare outing in Nowlan Park for Kilkenny and despite playing a near full strength side the Cats were a long way from their best as they ran out 2-16 to 0-8 winners.
Despite being without a number of their championship team from 2019 the Treaty County played well in the first half but Brian Dowling’s Kilkenny side eventually turned the tables with Denise Gaule netting a penalty and young starlet Aoife Doyle scoring 1-1.
Of the three games it was probably Kilkenny’s poorest championship display. Dowling was far from pleased despite seeing his side seal a place in the knockout stages.
“I wouldn’t be too happy with the performance,” the manager said. “We have a lot to work on for an All-Ireland semi-final. We know a performance like that today won’t be good enough to get us into an All-Ireland final.
“We’ve three weeks now to work on a lot of things,” he continued. “I suppose the game didn’t really mean anything as we were already through to the semi-finals but we tried to take it as seriously as we could and we looked for a better performance.
“We hope the girls can now pick it up and improve for the semi-final.”
After the Limerick win, Kilkenny sailed through to an All-Ireland semi-final and a three week break.
The rest from competitive action allowed Kilkenny to sit back and watch the quarter-finals as Cork collided with Clare and Waterford faced off with Tipperary.
Near neighbours Cork and Tipperary came out on top in the games at Pairc Ui Chaoimh and the draw took place afterwards with old adversaries Kilkenny and Cork placed out of the hat.
The sight of Cork in the semi-finals on Leeside was something that was always going to concentrate the minds for Kilkenny and they went into the game in determined fashion.
The Rebels had beaten Kilkenny in two of the previous three All-Ireland finals but, after coming through a group that included defending champions Galway and a hard fought success over Clare, there was a train of thought that Paudie Murray’s team would have been more battle hardened than the Noresiders.
Kilkenny were never really tested in their three wins up to that point and Cork looked a big step up and so that proved when the home side raced into a 1-3 to 0-0 lead.
However, the longer the championship went on the greater the character and belief that Kilkenny had within their ranks began to show. It came to fruition in that semi-final against Cork.
Led by Mary O’Connell (0-2) and Denise Gaule (0-3) they dragged themselves back into the game before Ann Dalton fired them ahead.
Dalton superbly picked off a dropping Gaule free on the edge of the square, then turned to blast it past Amy Lee (1-6 to 1-5).
The score transformed Kilkenny’s fortunes, as they went in at half-time with the lead (1-8 to 1-7).
Keen to build on that advantage the Cats quickly showed their claws on the restart.
The new half was only three minutes old when Miriam Walsh crashed through a series of Cork challenges and drew Lee from her line before lashing the sliotar home.
Cork were stung by that score and took some time to regain their rhythm.
It wasn’t until the final quarter that they began to find their composure again.
Katrina Mackey, Ashling Thompson and Chloe Sigerson managed to shave some points off the deficit, but the Kilkenny defence kept them at bay for long spells.
They weathered the storm, then booked their place in the final when Denise Gaule shot an insurance point in injury-time.
It was a real monkey off the back win for the Cats after losing in two previous finals to the Rebels and it gave the side a lot of confidence heading into the championship decider.
After Kilkenny disposed of Cork, Galway got the better of Tipperary in the other semi-final to set up a rematch from the 2019 final.
Galway had been the form side up to that date after they emerged on top of a difficult looking group including the likes of Cork, Wexford and Offaly before running out relatively comprehensive winners on a 1-11 to 0-8 scoreline over the Premier County in the last four.
Galway had beaten Kilkenny in the previous year’s final with three goals doing the trick for the team from the West and they went into Croke Park as favourites to win back to back O’Duffy Cups.
The pain of numerous close calls was definitely driving Kilkenny on though as they headed into their fifth All-Ireland final on the trot. Despite being pretty coy in the build up it was obvious that it was something of a motivation factor.
The 2020 senior camogie final was very different as not only were there no spectators present at GAA HQ, the showpiece game also took place on a Saturday night in December which created a wonderful backdrop.
It was a game that was ferociously contested from the first minute and by the time of the first water break there was no separating the sides.
Defences were mainly on top until the ball broke favourably for Galway towards the end of the first half and Orlaith McGrath rounded Kilkenny stopper Aoife Norris to net an opening half goal, the defending champions went into the break leading 1-5 to 0-6.
Kilkenny, slowly but surely, reeled in that advantage though. By the end of the third quarter they were in front with Denise Gaule, Grace Walsh and Aoife Doyle all knocking over points.
Galway got back level through the excellent Carrie Dolan and midfielder Niamh Kilkenny but when Gaule was fouled for a late penalty, the Windgap supremo made no mistake in drilling the sliotar to the bottom corner.
Gaule and Dolan then swapped frees in stoppage time and while Galway thereafter threw everything at Kilkenny, the full back line led by Claire Phelan stood tall and they hung on to claim a superb three point success.
It was a Kilkenny display full of heart and determination and the never-say-die attitude of the Noresiders proved too much for Galway in the end.
The pain of the last few years drove the Cats on with a converted 57th minute penalty from Denise Gaule edging Kilkenny past their opponents.
It was a victory that was based on a stout defensive performance as well as a couple of young guns coming to the fore with Mary O’Connell, Aoife Doyle and Katie Nolan all excelling in attack.
Gaule’s expertly-taken goal was what separated the sides come the end of the game and despite finding the net in fine style she was still nervous as she stood up for the strike.
“I was practicing penalties but I must have hit every single one of them wide at training on Thursday evening,” she said afterwards.
“I’d say our goalkeeper Aoife Norris was nervous enough of me stepping up! I was nearly back at the 45 I was so afraid to step over the line and I probably had a few yards to spare on it.
“I took a penalty during the league against Clare and it was disallowed as I stepped over the line so there was a bit of hit and hope about it. I just tried to pick my spot,” she said.
“Sometimes it doesn’t work out but thankfully it did tonight - I’m delighted.
“I don’t think the lack of a crowd makes much difference as you are focussed so everything else is just external noise really.”
The experienced full forward was the match winner for the Cats and it was rather fitting as she scored heavily throughout the championship for Kilkenny.
A second All-Ireland title in five years was based on a real team effort and for Brian Dowling it brought the curtain down on a perfect maiden year in charge of the side.
“We are just so happy,” he said.
“The devastation these girls have gone through the last few years has been incredible.
“I’ve only been involved since last year, but going back into the dressing room was cruel,” he recalled.
“Some girls didn’t know whether to come back this year, how could they face that again, but after a few conversations they did come back and I’m so proud of them especially after what they have gone through.
“We are over the moon.”