KIERAN SHANNON: Son of Kilkenny... man of Munster

Hear the one about the Kilkenny man who played for Munster? Or even better, about the Kilkenny GAA man who now works with Tipp GAA? Ian Dowling is a walking quiz question, but wherever he turns up, success seems to follow...

Physiotherapist and former Munster player Ian Dowling in Limerick. Dowling has always been proud of his roots. Picture: Liam Burke

Know Your Rugby, round one.

Munster had only two backs who started both the 2006 and the 2008 Heineken Cup final victories. Name them.

Ronan O’Gara, at out-half, is a no-brainer.

As for the identity of the other, well, chances are you’d have had to consult Google only for his name and face being spread over these two pages.

Ian Dowling isn’t a name that races to mind like the other players who started both finals: the aforementioned O’Gara, O’Connell, O’Callaghan, Wallace, Hayes, Flannery, even Horan. 

Yet he was there, out on that field, under that Millennium Stadium roof, for those two magical days.

Just as he was there in Thomond the day Paulie lifted Chabal out of it and he managed to score a crucial try himself.

And the last two occasions Munster played a European knockout game in a packed Lansdowne Road similar to what Rassie Erasmus’s squad will today.

And the last time Munster faced Saracens in a European semi-final, in 2008, again Dowling was there, out on the wing, in his understated, effective way.

You couldn’t exactly describe him as an accidental hero, but for sure he was an unlikely one, just as he was of the unsung variety too.

Two years before he started in that 2006 Heineken Cup final win over Biarritz, he couldn’t even make the starting XV for Shannon in an All Ireland League final.

The season prior to that again, he’d even asked Shannon not to consider him for selection after a performance that for him evoked one of the most farcical moments in English Premiership football history. 

You’ve probably heard the one about Ali Dia, the guy Graeme Souness once thought was a relative of an African footballer of the year and duly brought on as a substitute for Southampton, only to take him off again after the imposter had fallen about the place like a novice skater on ice. 

Dowling has dedicated himself to physiotherapy as diligently as he did to rugby. He worked with the Tipp footballers on their magical journey last year.

Well, for one afternoon at least, Ian Dowling was more Ali Dia than Dele Alli.

“I came off the bench for Shannon in the Munster senior league, and to be honest, it was like that time with Georgie Weah’s cousin. I couldn’t actually catch a ball. 

"I couldn’t do anything! I’d say the selectors were there, ‘Who’s this guy?!’ I knew the performance I’d given wasn’t me so after the game I went up to them.”

Part of the problem was he was taking too much on. As well as playing for Shannon while studying in UL for a sport science degree, he was also still trekking it back to Kilkenny on Sundays to play junior rugby for his hometown club. 

So, as much out of embarrassment as loyalty, he proposed that for the remainder of the season he’d play solely with Kilkenny, a suggestion the Shannon management concurred with.

Dowling has always been mindful and proud of his roots. When he rocked into the Millennium Stadium for the 2006 European final, he had an O’Loughlin Gael’s club bag thrown over his shoulder as a lucky charm. 

Dowling played hurling – and a bit of football too actually (“We won the double one year, at U16, I think”) – for the club alongside future seven-time All-Ireland winner Brian Hogan and 2002 league final match-winner Brian Dowling. 

He’d mark Jackie Tyrell in games against arch rivals James Stephens, Tommy Walsh in battles against a Féile-winning Tullaroan team. But Kilkenny RFC was close to his heart too and when he got game-time for them in a Towns Cup final and didn’t get any with the Gaels on their way to a county senior final the same year, that tilted him more towards the oval ball than the small one.

Soon he was starting with a team that went close to promotion to the AIL, and not wanting to abandon the cause, signed up for another season, even though by now he was playing as well as studying in Limerick. As it would turn out, that second promotion bid would also fall narrowly short. 

The only time he’d play rugby again for Kilkenny would be in rugby league the following summer (within a few months of taking up the sport he’d be playing for the national team in a European regional final, competing alongside and against Superleague professionals). In the Marble City, they understood.

I

t was actually in Kilkenny where his love affair with Munster as well as the sport began. Despite his civil nature, Downey has always had something of a non-conformist streak. 

While he studied and played rugby at Kilkenny CBS, another school, Kilkenny College, was just behind the family home, and so, even though he wasn’t a student there, he’d often hop over the wall to kick about in.

“I used to get booted out of there all the time by security,” he smiles. “But I’d just come back again the next day.”

Out there, moving around in that forbidden field he’d envisage himself wearing red; in more ways than one he never saw himself wearing blue. Kilkenny may have been hurling, not rugby, country, or at least certainly not Leinster terrain, but for someone like Dowling, Munster, with their quest and cause, felt more like a GAA team, just one playing with an oval ball.

Back then Leinster rugby seemed all about the schools, privilege. Munster seemed to have more a sense of representing a people, a kind of soul.

“I remember I went to Cardiff for the Celtic League final (in 2003). A group of us from Kilkenny would always travel to Munster games as opposed to Leinster games. What Munster were doing at that time fed the desire to play the game at as high a level as I could. 

"So when I was filling in the CAO, I wasn’t just looking at Limerick from an academic point of view. Limerick at the time was the hothouse of rugby and that’s where the best club rugby was.”

For his first two years down in Limerick he still played with Kilkenny out of loyalty; exclusively the first season; then pretty much the second too after his Ali Dia impersonation. 

In the third year he forsake his dual status but was still only a sub on the Shannon team that reached the 2004 AIL final against Cork Con.

Even for a considerable part of his fourth year he was still playing with just the seconds or as a sub with the firsts (“[Shannon coach] Gaillimh [Mick Galwey] put me in a kind of purgatory after my time away playing [with Ireland in] rugby league.”

Then Galwey offered him a ticket to heaven. A starting spot, including one for the 2005 AIL final win over Belfast Harlequins, and with that a voucher for lunch with Declan Kidney.

“I remember meeting Deccie in the sports bar in UL and basically saying that I just wanted a chance. He said if there was anything there for me, he’d try to see about it; that way in years to come whenever either of us would be walking along the street, at least we’d be able to say we gave it a shot. 

"That was a measure of the man. He was going to give me the opportunity and see where it would take us rather than either of us having any regrets.”

Kidney would roll the dice. First Dowling was put on a 10-month development contract; then that autumn, straight into the team for the Heineken Cup. After half-a-decade of so-near so-far stories, the team needed a new impetus, some new blood.

Dowling and his buddy Barry Murphy provided it.

On the eve of the European quarter-final against Castres, Kidney further acknowledged their promotion, rooming them with two institutions: Murphy with O’Gara, Dowling with O’Connell. 

The following day, Dowling got an even more delightful reminder of how his place in the world had changed. Just before kickoff in a packed Lansdowne Road, a hush fell over the crowd until it was broken by a familiar voice.

One of the Kilkenny gang. Charlie Phelan. 

“C’mon, Skinny!”

‘Skinny’ had more than Charlie looking out for him back then. That Munster side was probably the most leaderful in the history of Irish sport: start listing its leaders and chances are by the time you’ve reached double figures you still haven’t come to Anthony Horgan and John Kelly yet for Dowling and Murphy alongside him, they were instrumental with their mentoring, and generosity. 

“Guys like John and Anthony were just goldmines for me. If we were running a backline play, they were always there to feed back to me.”

There was no doubting who the leader of leaders was, though: the man who would lift the Holy Grail towards the roof of the Millennium Stadium at the end of that 2006 campaign.

“Axel [Anthony Foley] was just an incredible leader. After everything was spoken in the team room and before you’d get on the bus, he’d sum up in just a few words what needed to be done.

“Same on the field. I remember a game in Llanelli and it was bucketing down which meant all of a sudden the game plan was out the window. He simplified exactly what needed to be done. ‘Get off the line that bit harder. 

"In attack, just sit back that bit deeper to give yourself that extra bit of time on the ball.’ 

"It might have seemed very basic and possibly very obvious to the other lads but for someone young and naive just coming into the squad, that clarity was huge. He had a knack of saying the right thing at the right time.”

Dowling himself seemed to have a knack of being in the right place at the right time and not just at coming on to a ball at pace: in his first season with Munster, he’d win the Heineken Cup. 

In his five seasons in the shirt, he’d never know what it was like for the club to miss out on making the knockout stages of Europe’s primary competition.

Then in the autumn of 2010 he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, the victim of what Alan Quinlan has described as a “freakish injury”. A game against the Ospreys had just kicked off. 

The ball spiralled over to his side. The ball got knocked off the jump. As Dowling readjusted his body position, his leg was left vulnerable to a low driving tackle. 

“My leg was locked out and when one of the Ospreys came in, it [his leg] was compressed down through the hip.”

At first he slowly rose and hobbled on but when he tried to make a run, a horrendous pain shot through his leg. Even when he was given gas, there was no relief.

Over the following six months, there’d be little progress either. He’d try everything: surgery, extensive rehab, seek a third medical opinion, in France, after previous consultations here and in the UK. The verdict there left him with nowhere else to go: at 28, his career was over.

“It was the last thing I was expecting to be told. Up to then you were trying to think ‘Who else has had this and come back and how?’ But ultimately I’d had a permanent hip resurfacing, basically a hip replacement, even though I was young. 

"I still couldn’t walk properly. I was still in a lot of pain. I was hobbling and limping around the place. But once I understood that I’d explored every avenue, it made it that bit easier [to finish up].”

Dowling is now a physiotherapist for a living but you’d be wrong to assume that such a vocation was prompted by his injury; he was already studying for a postgrad in the discipline in UL before that game against the Ospreys. It’s a discipline that he has dedicated himself to as diligently as he did to rugby, soaking up like a sponge the knowledge of generous mentors like John Casey and Damien Mordon.

He has his own practice now. Ian Dowling Physio operates out of a body-building gym in Raheen, Dowling having long made Limerick a permanent home for him and his wife Gill. He comes across a whole spectrum of people at his work.

Probably his highest-profile clients though are the Tipperary footballers that made it all the way to the All-Ireland semi-final last summer and were back in Croke Park only the other week to win a league final.

Dowling offers more than just the expertise of his current discipline; players like All-Star Michael Quinlivan have spoken about how he brings so much intangible wisdom and experience from his previous one. 

When a smiling Liam Kearns cleared his throat and sang a rousing song in the winning dressing room after that Division 3 win over Louth – something that went semi-viral on social media – there were echoes of ‘Stand Up And Fight’ about it.

For Quinlivan, a standout memory from last year’s magical campaign was the dressing room after the shock win over Cork; when Dowling arrived back in, he brought with him a couple of drinks for all the players.

“It was a nice touch,” Quinlivan would say. “All the lads appreciated that and it really added to the occasion.”

For Dowling, it was only right. As he’d learn by having to give up his sport at 28, such moments are so fleeting.

“That time immediately after matches is very, very precious. It’s only when you’re gone from that do you really realise just what you had there. It was one of the things I found bizarre [about the GAA], coming from rugby. Even with club rugby, the matches are on a Saturday and you get to enjoy and share the wins. 

"In professional rugby, it’s the same; you’ll share some time afterwards or you’ll see each other on the Monday and you can talk through the win. But for a lot of the [GAA] lads, once they leave the dressing room and maybe after a bit of food, they’re gone – back to Dublin, back to Galway, back to Cork or wherever.

“You spend too much time working all season long for a particular match not to savour the win. So last summer it was great to see some of those wins being celebrated afterwards. Because they’re going to be some of the best memories from sport that those fellas will have. 

"When I look back on my time with Munster, some of the best times were coming back to the Clarion and mixing with all our families and partners. Or just being in that dressing room, after grinding out a win, and being able to share the moment with the guys.”

He still sees the lads. Barry Murphy, the other bolter of 2006, is his next-door neighbour and along with Jerry Flannery was a groomsman at his wedding. 

They’ve a former players’ WhatsApp group and even a regular nine-a-side soccer game going near Axel’s home in Killaloe where Foley and Dowling with his dodgy hip used to form a particularly slow but shrewd forward tandem (“Axel was a bit like [Matt] Le Tissier – not the most mobile but the touch and vision...).”

A few weeks ago for the quarter-final against Toulouse, he caught up with Murphy, Barry O’Mahony, Ivan Dineen and Niall Ronan beforehand for some food in the Cornstore before going on to the match. 

Today a group of them will meet up in Dublin, though Dowling may not make it as he and Gil welcomed a baby boy to the family this week.

Creating as well as recalling more memories.

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