Ian Dowling: “You don't know what the ceiling is for the footballers in Tipperary.”
BY SHANE STAPLETON
A Kilkenny man in Tipperary colours.
It’s an uncommon sight, and there was a time when Ian Dowling was the butt of jokes about stepping over the county boundaries. Not that he minds.
“I think the novelty of all that has kind of worn off”, Dowling smiles. “There's not much to it now, maybe a bit more in Kilkenny where there is a bit of slagging. It's all good now at the minute.”
It’s been a winding road for a man who hurled all the way up with O’Loughlin Gaels, who won two European Cups with Munster, collected a couple of Ireland rugby caps, and is now physio for the Premier County footballers.
“I would have been hurling from street leagues right up until after we first got to the county final at senior level,” says Dowling, who hurled alongside ex-Kilkenny star Brian Hogan.
“We won our first senior and got into the Leinster championship when I was still on the panel, but I didn't really get a look-in.
“For me, I was also going well with the rugby club in Kilkenny. I was starting there and we were competing for Towns Cups.
“I was making a bit more headway on the rugby side of things, and then I came to college in Limerick and that was another tipping point."
He had great days at Munster alongside the likes of Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell, Anthony Foley (RIP), Peter Stringer, and many other Irish greats.
Within that, there were a number of players from hurling areas, such as Tipperary native Denis Leamy, who he’d occasionally go pucking with.
“Oh yeah,” Dowling beams. “I remember once when we had a bit of downtime, I can't remember the name of the grounds, but we were (pucking) down in a Cork stadium.
“When it was usually either Cork versus Kilkenny or Kilkenny versus Tipperary, we always had a good crew travelling to the All-Ireland finals.
“So there was always the slagging coming up the All-Irelands and it was always good banter. As well as that, John Casey, the former Tipperary physio was working with Shannon, but he was also Munster physio for a time. So there was a strong GAA interest and grá for it within Munster.”
Dowling had great success with the red army, most thrillingly when they finally landed the holy grail in 2006, beating Biarritz at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. A second European title followed in 2008, when they scraped past Toulouse, and those days were truly savoured.
Liam Kearns and his Tipperary crew have made great strides in the past couple of seasons, and the Kerry native encourages his charges to let their hair down at the right times.
“I think there's a bit of both,” Dowling says of the balance. “From my background in rugby, even at club level on a Saturday after a match, you were allowed to celebrate your wins.
“That was something that was important when I was with Shannon or... well, with Munster and the professional side of things there, it's probably dropped off to a lesser extent.
“I found it a bit bizarre, crazy to an extent, that on the Sunday some of the lads who after all the sacrifices they make from week to week, and some of lads driving down from Dublin and leaving at 4 o'clock to get to training at 7 o'clock, and then on a Sunday they could possibly have the biggest victory in their sporting career and they might be back in work on Monday morning without acknowledging just how good a feat that was.”
“So it's definitely important to celebrate and acknowledge the victories, because in sport there are far more lows than there are highs.
“I think one of the things with this group of footballers, there is that camaraderie around it. “I've been in other environments where it's not as natural as the craic in this group of Tipp footballers."
The former winger now runs ‘Ian Dowling Physio’ in Limerick, and he’s well-aware of how much young players are putting themselves through, and the injury risks they face.
In September 2010, Dowling first picked up a troublesome hip injury in a game for Munster against the Ospreys, and ultimately it led to his retirement at the age of 28.
Other rugby players, such as his former Munster teammate Niall Ronan, went back to play GAA with their clubs. Indeed, the latter won a Meath intermediate county title with St Colmcilles in 2016, and dedicated the win to the late Anthony Foley.
“Golf is about as taxing as it has got for me, because I couldn't really,” says Dowling of going back to hurling.
“My injury history meant I couldn't. It would have been nice to be like Niall and Tomás O'Leary, who is also back playing with his club team (Erin’s Own).
“It's definitely a side that I think lads look forward to. I know from talking to Niall and Tomás that they enjoyed going back with their GAA clubs. Just that social side of it.”
This weekend, the Tipp footballers are expected to get their season off to a winning start against Waterford at Semple Stadium. Should they win that, the Premier will meet Cork a week later in the Munster semi-final, and that presents challenges for Dowling in his role as the physio.
“We're trying to be as proactive as possible because if there’s little niggles, bumps and knocks that generally would be resolved within a week or so, there’s added pressure if they do pick up an injury,” Dowling says.
Kearns and Co led the side to a first All-Ireland semi-final in 81 years two seasons ago, but they just came up short against Mayo. It’s always been a tall order keeping the best players with the panel, and no doubt they would love to have Colin O’Riordan (AFL), Peter Acheson (moved to Dubai) and Seamus Kennedy all involved. If everyone was around, it’s difficult to estimate how strong the team could be.
“Yeah,” the Kilkenny man says. “When I came in at the start, I had heard of past successes at underage and minor and then the disappointment that the lads had at Under-21 (2015 All-Ireland final v Tyrone).
"From working with the likes of (selectors) Shane Stapleton and Paul Fitzgerald and Brian Lacey, the guys who had been there for the hard times before the good, you appreciate the calibre of footballer that's there now.
“Hurling is always going to be the number one sport there but there are so many talented footballers in the county that if there was a way... you don't know what the potential or ceiling is for the footballers of Tipperary.”