Quilty desperate to savour again the sweet taste of success

Kilkenny star has finished on the losing side in five of the six All-Ireland finals she has played

En route to collecting her 12 All-Ireland medals, which included that seven-in-a-row from 1985, Ann Downey’s Croke Park experiences as a player were largely joyous ones.

For the bulk of her current Kilkenny charges, though, there’s been a more strained relationship with the place, the county losing five of the six senior finals it has reached in the last decade.

Michelle Quilty was there for all of them, including the last two, Cork winning by a single point on both occasions.

“But whether you lose by one or 20, whether you’re just edged or hammered out the gate, it makes no difference,” she says. “When you lose, you lose.”


Sunday, then, will be Quilty’s seventh senior final, Galway the opponents this time around, the goal to emulate that magical day in 2016 when she became the first Kilkenny captain to raise the O’Duffy Cup since Downey 22 years before.

“When the final whistle blew I think I was in a little bit of shock. I’d been on the losing side in 2009, 2013 and 2014, and after every one of them you’re thinking, ‘How am I going to pick myself up after this?’. But you just have to put them behind you and start from scratch, even if it is hard to forget about them. You tell yourself this could be your year, and you put in a massive effort to make it your year. But, definitely, it gets harder and harder after each disappointment.

“So, standing there on the field after the 2016 final, it was all a bit surreal, I didn’t really take it in. I think it was only when we started going around the schools with the cup in the days after that it began to sink in, that we were All Ireland champions. You really saw what it meant to everyone, especially after such a long gap. That’s something you’ll never forget. And to be captain that day was special, it was a proud moment for me and a lovely memory to have.”

But, from a Cork point of view, normal service was resumed in 2017 and 2018, Quilty and her comrades suffering at their hands all over again.

“And while it’s a privilege to play in so many finals, when you’re not winning them they don’t mean anything to you. You play camogie to win All-Irelands. You’re in them to win them, the ones we lost don’t really count.

“They can seep in to your head if you let them, but you have to be mentally tough and block all of that out. And I’m not one for looking back on the past, I tend to look forward.”

Strong hurlers

While Galway got the better of reigning champions Cork in the second of the day’s semi-finals in Limerick three weeks ago, by then Quilty’s 1-9 against Tipperary had helped fire Kilkenny in to their sixth final in seven years.

But while there might be some relief that Cork won’t be lining out opposite them on Sunday, March’s two-point National League final defeat by Galway, which ended Kilkenny’s hopes of a four-in-a-row in that competition, served notice of their potential. Kilkenny, though, prevailed when the teams met in the opening weekend of the group phase of the championship back in June, so it’s one win apiece in 2019.

“They’re a very talented side, right through their panel they’re strong hurlers,” says the forward, who plays her club camogie with Mullinavat.

“There’s no area where you could say they are any way weak, as they showed in the league final they have all the hurling capabilities to put it up against any team in the country. We always know any time we go out to play Galway that we’re in for a hard battle, and Sunday won’t be any different.”

For Quilty, a two-time All Star who works as a food and beverage operations manager at Waterford Institute of Technology, it all began when she was just four.

“That’s when I started playing with the boys, we had no camogie club where I was living, so I played with them up until I was 16. I think that definitely stood to me, you have to toughen up when you’re in the mix with the boys, especially when you’re my size, when you’re not six foot tall! Even at that young age the lads can be stronger than you, so that’s when you need to learn your skills, to be that one step ahead of them.”

“But the game has changed a lot since I first came on to the Kilkenny senior panel, when I was 17, it’s got so much faster and the strength of the players has increased.

“When you think back to 2000, when Claire Grogan played for Tipp in a senior final when she was just 14 – that wouldn’t be allowed now under the rules, but even if it was, there’s absolutely no way you could put a girl that young out on the pitch to play senior. Back then your skill and your pace would have done it for you, but with strength and conditioning and all the work players put in now, they are just way stronger than they used to be.”

It was back in April the Women’s Gaelic Players Association released the results of a survey which showed 70 per cent of camogie players questioned agreed that rules around physical contact in the game needed to change, that the existing rules, which effectively make camogie a non-contact sport, were outdated.

Much of that debate was stirred by last year’s final when two-thirds of the scores came from frees, the general consensus being that frees are too easily won in the modern game.

Better spectacle

“I’m not one to say this or that rule should be changed, it’s not my role,” says Quilty, “but they do need to be looked at, maybe by some past and present players. As the game moves forward and is quickening up, and with players getting more physical, we need to make it a better spectacle, especially with the games being televised and there being a lot more coverage now. The rules need to progress along with the game, definitely.”

For now, though, Quilty’s thoughts are more focused on winning her second senior All-Ireland medal than rule changes.

“We do look at Ann [Downey] sometimes and think: ‘Wow, this woman has 12 All Irelands, we only have the one’. And the way the game has gone, with the physicality and quickness of it, there are a lot of players who don’t even see 12 seasons, never mind win an All Ireland in every one of them.”

Whether they can edge Galway or hammer them out the gate, Quilty doesn’t mind. A win would be a win, and leave Kilkenny celebrating like it was 2016 all over again.

* All three camogie finals – the Junior (Kerry v Limerick, 12.0), the Intermediate (Galway v Westmeath, 2.0) and the Senior (Galway v Kilkenny, 4.15) – will be shown live on RTÉ2 on Sunday.

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times