KILKENNY’S GRACE WALSH felt something was a bit off when both of her parents offered to drop her to the team bus on All-Ireland final day last year.

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Grace Walsh and Anne Dalton.

Usually, it would be a job for just one of them on match days. Dad was in the driving seat on this occasion but Walsh’s mother offered to come along “for the spin.” Their daughter assumed she was probably just coming in to get a coffee, but there was actually another secret motive behind the curtain.

As the bus pulled away with Croke Park as their destination, the Kilkenny players looked out the window to a joyful sight that “hit the spot” according to Walsh.

Families and friends of all the members of the squad lined up along the road to form a guard of honour as Brian Dowling’s side headed for their fifth All-Ireland final in-a-row.

The supporting cast saluting their players in the only way they could under the Covid-19 restrictions of that period, which prohibited crowds from attending games.

“I couldn’t describe it, it was incredible,” Walsh recalls as she located her folks in the bunch.

“They had the whole family and my boyfriend and everybody else spread out along the road and it was just unbelievable.

“It was emotional for a lot of people. Even thinking back, it hit the spot. It was unbelievable and it was nice to see that before you went off to play because obviously they couldn’t be there in the crowd. It was incredible I must say.”

The scale of the task was laid bare for Kilkenny that December evening. They were coming into this decider as defeated finalists in the previous three All-Ireland finals.

Commentary around the final suggested that the reigning champions Galway would be defending their title against wounded cats who had forgotten how to win.

Walsh paid little attention to that “outside noise” and gave a player-of-the-match display as Kilkenny avenged the hurt of 2017, 2018 and 2019 with a 1-14 to 1-11 win. A Denise Gaule penalty in the 57th minute proved to be the decisive score an a fitting conclusion to a gripping game.

“Obviously I wouldn’t wish Covid on anyone again but I think Covid really helped us in that we actually got a nice break,” Walsh replies when asked about what was different in the Kilkenny camp last year.

Walsh celebrating Kilkenny’s All-Ireland win over Galway.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“When you’re playing in an All-Ireland final every year and in those three finals that we lost, that’s a lot of disappointment. And then the minute you finish those games, you’re straight into club.

“And once club is finished, you’re nearly back to training with county again. You don’t really have any time to reflect or any time to accept what has happened.

“We had been on the trot for so long that we never actually got that break that we probably needed. During Covid, we did take a big break where we weren’t expected to do any training and I think anyone playing at inter-county level wants to stay fit and girls did stay fit.

“I just think that break did us the world of good. So by the time we were able to go back training, everyone was just so excited to be back. And I think then when we did get to go back training and go back playing, we probably realised how lucky we were and how fortunate we were that we got to still play while other people probably didn’t.”

Kilkenny are two games deep into the 2021 National League. Two wins against Dublin and Offaly saw them top Group 3 and assure them of a place in the quarter-finals where they will take on Limerick this evening [throw-in, 5pm].

County panels go through a process of flux every year and the post-2020 shakeup saw two key players exit the Kilkenny dressing room. Midfielder Anna Farrell has stepped away from the panel, Walsh says, while two-time All-Ireland winner and one of the best players of her generation, Anne Dalton, announced her retirement in January.

“I probably expected it,” says Walsh about the departure of their veteran star player who had the versatility to play in almost every position on the pitch.

“I suppose with Covid, she has three new kids with Karen at home. That’s a lot of hard work so I wasn’t even sure if she was going to stay with us in 2020 and when she did I thought it was unbelievable.

Grace Walsh celebrating World Milk Day on 1 June.

Source: National Dairy Council

“We would always be messing with someone who is a bit older and say, ‘Oh, you’ll surely stay on for another year.’ I don’t even think I said that to her this year because I kind of knew.

“I actually remember going out in the All-Ireland final into the second half and I remember grabbing Dalton and I just said, ‘If this is going to be your last year playing, make sure it’s worth it.’

“You kind of just know. She has a young family at home and you’re not going to put anyone under that sort of pressure to come back again.

“I suppose after getting the win, she realised it was time for her to go and enjoy family life for a while.

“You’d never know, she could make an appearance back.”

Being a defender by trade, Walsh often had the displeasure of marking Dalton and trying to keep pace with her elusive runs and impressive reading of plays.

Unsurprisingly, it’s an exhausting task with little to no margin for error.

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“She is just so, so intelligent you’ve no idea,” Walsh elaborates. 

“She actually makes a lot of selfless runs or she might tell people to make a certain run that she sees. Her vision is just incredible. She could be on the pitch five minutes and she’ll know exactly what the other team is doing and she’ll know how to play against it.

“She was very special, a brilliant, brilliant player.

“I actually marked her in a good few club games and sometimes when you’re marking her, you’re only focused on her and you can’t really focus on your own game. Take your eye off her for a split second and she’ll be gone and have scored.

“She’s so gifted that you literally can’t give her a bit of space or she’ll have a goal or a point.”

As the Covid-19 situation worsened in Ireland at the turn of 2021, the Kilkenny players were forced to return to individual training programmes. Walsh works as a nurse in Dublin and while some of her team-mates are also based in the capital, she chose to train on her own out of concerns about her exposure to Covid-19 in the hospital.

Returning to collective training was a huge relief for her and she has a newfound appreciation for athletes in individual sports who, more often than not, train in isolation.

The camogie season is now in full flow and the sport received an added boost recently with the inclusion of the league finals as test events with a crowd of up to 3,000 allowed in Croke Park.

The prospect of playing in a final can’t enter the minds of the Kilkenny players just yet. A long season, hopefully, lies ahead.

But the possibility of having family and friends back in the stands again is an encouraging thought for Walsh.

“It’s brilliant for the game and it’s brilliant for the country because you start to see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel and that.

“It will be good, it’ll be good for camogie as well to be one of the first test events with crowds. Hopefully that plan stays in place.”

Grace Walsh is working with National Dairy Council (NDC) and Everything Starts with Milk this World Milk Day to support the essential part milk plays in their pre and post training regime.

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