2020 will go down as a year to remember for most. However, for everyone associated with Kilkenny Camogie, it may be memorable for a whole different reason.
The Kittens claimed their first All-Ireland crown since their victory in 2016 when they defeated Galway on a bitterly cold Saturday evening in Croke Park earlier this month. It was a moment of pure elation and relief for the whole squad and was the product of all the work done in previous years.
We thought we’d take a look back at the three matches in the 2020 championship that were key in helping Brian Dowling’s side become the best camogie team in the land.
1. Kilkenny take control of their group with an impressive display away to Waterford
Brian Dowling’s first championship game in charge of Kilkenny was a tricky test in Walsh Park on October 17th. This was always going to be a critical game for a number of reasons.
First of all, this was the new managers first match in the championship. All of the work and efforts put into training in the previous weeks and months would have been almost entirely irrelevant had Kilkenny come away from their neighbour’s backyard without a win. This game was critical for both management and players in ensuring they had confidence in one another.
Furthermore, despite this being the first game in the group, Kilkenny’s win in Waterford was almost a guarantee that they would finish top of their group and with it a place in the semi-finals. With the help of seven points from Player of the Year contender Denise Gaule, Kilkenny got off to the best possible start in their quest to regain the O’Duffy Cup with a 0-15 – 0-08 win in Walsh Park.
2. Dowling’s charges come out of the lion’s den with their hopes intact
This one will live long in the memory for anyone inside Páirc Uí Chaoimh on the last Saturday in November. An early start of 12pm against a Cork side who had home advantage and were most people’s favourites heading into the semi-final meant that Kilkenny’s championship looked like it may have reached its final destination.
The start that Dowling’s team made did nothing to convince anyone that they were going to make their fifth consecutive All-Ireland final. Two Chloe Sigerson points and an Orla Cronin score gave the Rebels an early three-point lead. When Gemma O’Connor hit the back of the net to extend Paudie Murray’s side lead to 1-03 – 0-00 with less than ten minutes gone in the game, it looked as though Cork were going to cruise to a third defeat of Kilkenny in four years and leave the away sides hopes in tatters.
Dowling’s charges refused to give up however and showed that they had an edge to their game that may have been missing since their All-Ireland success in 2016. After missing scoreable frees early in the game, Windgap sharpshooter Gaule found her radar before half-time and a crucial goal from the experienced Anne Dalton cut Cork’s lead to a single point as the referee blew for half-time.
Kilkenny continued their momentum into the second-half when Tullaroan woman Miriam Walsh fired past Cork goalkeeper Amy lee to push the Kittens into the lead for the first time in the game. Kilkenny survived a second-half onslaught from the home side and eventually won on a score of 2-10 to 1-11.
Kilkenny had passed the most serious test of their character to date and had once and for all avenged the heart-breaking 2017 and 2018 All-Ireland final defeats to the Leesiders.
Kilkenny were one game away from the ultimate prize, but it was an occasion that had proved too much for the side in the past.
3. Kilkenny finally get over the line on an emotional night in Croke Park
It had all come down to this. Dowling’s team faced the All-Ireland champions Galway in a repeat of last year’s All-Ireland final.
Kilkenny were facing their most difficult challenge to date. Up against an imperious Galway side who had defeated every team they had faced in the championship, the Kittens yet again came into the game as the clear underdogs.
In what was a tight and tense affair in an empty Croke Park, the two sides were level when the referee signalled for the second-half water break. An animated Dowling delivered one last message to his troops as they took their last moment to breathe before the final whistle. It was clear how much this opportunity meant to Dowling and his players. They were not going to let this moment pass them by as they had done in the past.
With the score at 1-11 – 1-11 with three minutes of normal time remaining, Denise Gaule was dragged down in the box and the referee awarded a penalty to Kilkenny. Most players would have tapped the ball over the bar and give their sides the lead. But Gaule isn’t most players. She struck the sliotar low and hard to her left to give Kilkenny a lead that Galway could never claw back. If ever a moment epitomised a team, it was Gaule’s penalty. They were willing to take a risk that only champions would take. Kilkenny showed why they were worthy winners and deservedly claimed a 1-14 to 1-11 victory.
In what was a tough year for many, the Kilkenny camogie team were able to make a lot of people happy on a cold December night in Croke Park and showed everyone why they are the best team in Ireland bar none.