The42: 8 Players that defined the GAA Season – Niamh Kilkenny

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Over the next few weeks, The42 writers will profile — and analyse — the men and women that defined Gaelic games in 2021.

Last week, Kevin O’Brien sketched out the impact made by Limerick’s Sean Finn in the hurling championship. This week, Sinéad Farrell throws the spotlight on Galway camogie star Niamh Kilkenny.

The nimble-footed workhorse: The best midfielder in the country at the peak of her powers, who possesses the engine of a marathon runner and the calming presence of a Buddhist monk. 

For the second time in her camogie career, Niamh Kilkenny has been shortlisted for the Camogie Association/GPA Senior Players’ Player of the Year Award.

She deservedly scooped the top prize in 2019, and looks to be a strong contender for the gong once again in 2021. (However, the decision on that is not known yet as the Camogie All-Star awards have been postponed due to ongoing issues with the Covid-19 pandemic.)

In any case, Kilkenny is in the elite bracket of current camogie players. She is at the core of Galway’s engine.

With a perfect balance of speed and endurance, she is a commanding presence in the Galway team who always looks comfortable on the ball.

She consistently produces clutch scores too, including the two points she clipped over in this year’s All-Ireland decider against Cork. The second of those points arrived just on the resumption of the second half when there was only one between the sides.

Her performance in the 2019 final was equally stellar, as her stats sheet proved. Her 25 possessions, 12 completed passes and four-point tally was fittingly capped off with a Player of the Match Award.

By now, she’s a firmly established household name. One young Galway fan who attended the 2021 All-Ireland final ensured there was no confusion as to who her favourite player is when she held up a sign which read:
“I want to meet Niamh Kilkenny.”

Galway are the top force in camogie right now, having lifted the O’Duffy Cup twice since 2019. But Kilkenny can remember the barren years, when they were trailing a distant third to Cork and Kilkenny, quite vividly.

“We lost in ’08, ’10, ’11 and ’15 so I could write a book on losing All-Ireland finals,” she said to the media after their 2019 triumph.

Kilkenny first joined the Galway panel in 2006, at a time when her older sister Orla was playing as well as a host of other players from her local Pearse’s club. 

For Aislinn Connolly, who was an established member of the team at the time, the younger Kilkenny sibling was marked out for greatness during those formative years.

“You always knew there was something special about her and that she would go on to be brilliant,” she tells The42. “But to be honest, I don’t think anyone expected her to be as good as she is. She is just so consistently brilliant and so consistently man-marked and one of the players that the Corks and Kilkennys man-mark.

“She always had that confidence that a lot of Pearse’s players who represented Galway have. And she was always a flyer. When we’d be doing runs or shuttle runs, she was always out in front.

“She reminds me of Brian O’Driscoll in that she has such a low centre of gravity to the ground. She’s always able to get down low and win the ruck and win the tackle and pick the ball up in the tightest and hardest of situations.”

Given her importance to Galway, Kilkenny is routinely identified as a target player for opponents. Nullifying her influence is the key to unlocking Galway’s frailties.

But despite the constant attention she receives, Kilkenny rarely shows emotion on the pitch. The same can be said for her steely reaction she gives to a point sweeping over the bar.

“She has a brilliant temperament,” says Connolly, “and she’s a lovely person on and off the pitch. I know you can say that about a lot of people but you can’t say it about everyone. People really admire her and love her and look up to her because of that. She’s not big-headed and doesn’t get carried away or put herself up on a pedestal. She’s the same as she was as she came in in 2006.

“But the highs are never too high and the lows are never too low, and I think that’s what stands to her and why she’s so consistent. Nothing fazes her, she just gets on with it and goes out to play her own game. And when she plays brilliantly, Galway play brilliantly.

“I think last year [in the All-Ireland final], she didn’t play as brilliantly as she normally does and Galway didn’t win. I’m a strong believer that if Niamh Kilkenny is going well on All-Ireland final day, Galway go well. Aoife Donohue is coming into that area as well now. Niamh is 32 and Aoife might take over from her.”

Almost every attack is influenced by Kilkenny in some way. If she’s not instigating an attack, she’s helping to transfer possession up the field or adding the final touch by firing the ball between the posts.

Her GPS tracker would make for interesting reading at the end of every game.

And at this point in her career, Kilkenny is appropriately being ranked alongside Therese Maher as being one of the greatest to ever wear the Galway jersey.

“Even as a young one, the occasion never got to her,” says Connolly.

“You see that now, her experience has only strengthened her skill level and her reputation as the GOAT along with Therese Maher. Niamh wouldn’t be the loudest either, she’s quite quiet. A lot of the time, she lets the hurling do the talking.

“But into the 2000s, when she was a few years on the panel and established, she would speak every now and again. It was kind of quality over quantity. She didn’t speak that often but when she did, it was very sensible and you’d listen to her. She commanded the attention of people because you knew when she talked, she had something proper to say and people took it on board.

“I’m sure in recent years that that’s progressing more and more as she becomes the more senior player on the team.”

The42: 8 Players that defined the GAA Season – Carrie Dolan