Anger grows over Limerick bias smothering Munster with ‘bubble’ alienating wider province

In the summer of 2004, the late Niall O’Driscoll, then chairman of Munster, gave an interview to the Irish Examiner which lifted the lid on the tribal tensions that were bubbling in the province.

Munster had just racked up their latest gallant European Cup defeat (an epic semi-final against Wasps) and in the fallout their revered Aussie flanker Jim Williams questioned why the province was operating from two bases at the place of one in the professional era.

Enter O’Driscoll. The Munster chairman was an unusual figure in that he came through the junior rugby ranks, via Bandon RFC, and, as well as being smart and articulate, his background gave him a desire to look beyond practices established.

Celtic League Munster 18/12/2004 Mike Mullins receives a watch from Niall O’Driscoll for his 50th appearance. Photo: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

The headline-grabbing stand-out line saw O’Driscoll call for a central rugby hub in the province, a 30,000-capacity stadium and center of excellence to be built from scratch around Charleville, roughly halfway between Cork and Limerick.

It was a bold suggestion and one that invited opposition (“I raised the issue in committee and the Cork-Limerick agenda ensured a mixed response,” O’Driscoll admitted in the article) but he didn’t. Couldn’t have anticipated the quick and violent reaction once the story surfaced.

Limerick has gone mad. “No way,” Limerick Mayor Michael Hourigan said, “Thomond Park IS Munster rugby.” It’s more than a stadium, it’s the heart and soul of Munster rugby.’

Former Ireland captain Philip Danaher also weighed in. “This Cork kite has been flying for a while,” said the Garryowen man and former Limerick footballer.

“The money should be invested in the development of the game and not in a new stadium in the middle of nowhere. What they should do is sit down with Limerick City Council to improve and expand Thomond Park.

Popular broadcaster Len Dinneen (“The Voice of Munster Rugby”) had the final say. “Cork for drisheen,” he said, “Thomond Park for Munster Rugby.”

rotten core

A general view of Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

O’Driscoll’s plan never took off (indeed he was harshly reprimanded by various Munster officials for having the temerity to speak his mind), Thomond Park was redeveloped into a modern stadium of Seating 26,000 as of the 2008-09 season and Munster, since 2016, operate from a single base in – you guessed it – Limerick.

However, as Treaty City’s bias and dominance of Munster Rugby’s operations has increased off the pitch, it has been accompanied by a steady decline.

Munster won the last of their two European Cups in 2008, before the stadium was fully completed, and have not won a trophy since 2011.

And, while moving to a single center in UL might make more logistical sense than splitting two bases, it didn’t translate to better results – in fact, things got so out of hand that, if Munster lose to Connacht tonight in Galway, they can rightly be considered Ireland’s weakest province.

Munster
Peter O’Mahony dejected after the United Rugby Championship game against the Dragons in Newport, Wales. Photo: Ben Evans/Sportsfile

Even if they win, it won’t hide the fact that there’s something rotten deep in the province far more important than surface issues like bedding in a new coach ticket or poor pre-planning. -season.

Munster is torn apart by a civil war that has seen resources and focus inexorably directed towards Limerick while the rest of the province feels neglected and disenfranchised.

Just like all those years ago, the feeling is that there is a sense of entitlement in Limerick, bordering on smug, that they are the ‘true home’ of Munster rugby.

How does it work for them?

Hurling is fast becoming the city’s dominant sporting force, no Limerick club have won the All-Ireland League since 2009 and their sporting citadel of Thomond Park regularly features empty seats while becoming such a financial drain Munster have had to playing and losing a crucial European Cup game against Toulouse in Dublin last season because the province was so desperate for the revenue from an Ed Sheeran gig.

Burst ‘The Bubble’

November 30, 2007; Ian Dowling s tackled by Leinster’s Stephen Keogh. Magners League, Musgrave Park, Cork. Photo: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

Talk to those at the grassroots of Munster rugby and the resentment is real and very deep.

The perception among clubs and schools is that Munster have gone from a team that truly represented and respected their feeder base to a team that split off as a ‘Club Munster’ franchise – cut off from the rest of the province in its withdrawal from Limerick.

As always, Leinster provides the most relevant (and infuriating for Munster diehards) point of comparison.

While there is symmetry between Leo Cullen’s frontline operation and his feeder schools and clubs – with regular training clinics and player visits as Leinster continue to protect their future – the situation at Munster n is not as consistent.

A coach involved with a top school (apart from Limerick) told how throughout the Johann van Graan era there had been no contact with Munster or any organized attendance at any of their matches (not to mention workouts).

It’s the same narrative coming out of the clubs, where unpaid volunteers are expected to nurture young talent until they are deemed fit to join Munster Academy, with very little coming back to the clubs in return.

The expression “Limerick bubble” comes up regularly when you ask questions, as does the Waterford question. Ireland’s fifth most populous city has not had an AIL club since 2009, when Waterpark was relegated to the Munster Junior League.

A general view of Waterpark RFC. Under 18 Club Interprovincial, Munster v Leinster. RFC Water Park, Waterford. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

Talents like Thomas Ahern and Jack O’Donoghue have emerged from the region – but more by accident and local effort than any conception of Munster – and it’s a wild indictment of trail planning in the province that this untapped resource has not been addressed (especially with rumors that Leinster are sniffing around the region with a view to luring talent into their adjacent system).

Meanwhile, the tangible proof of Munster’s loss of the ‘heart and mind’ of the whole province can be seen in Thomond’s dwindling attendance.

Where once the big games in Limerick saw a pilgrimage on the N20, there is now an unexpected drizzle of traffic.

Many club loyalists who relished the opportunity to see their efforts represented on the big stage and traveled by the thousands to Munster matches, at home and abroad, no longer feel any affinity with the provincial team and have turned the back.

You reap what you sow.

Give a hand

A general view of a corner post before the Rugby League match between Munster and Dragons at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

You wonder what might have happened if Niall O’Driscoll had been properly listened to back then, but as Eddie O’Sullivan would say, the toothpaste won’t go back into the tube.

Munster cannot go back in time, but it can become more inclusive.

By all accounts the North-South divide is more bitter than ever at committee level, with the North’s agenda fueled by their central cast, and there is a desperate need to realize that Munster rugby is more than Limerick – “the real house” or not.

Events like South Africa v Munster at Páirc Uí Chaoimh are a step in the right direction, so why not consider playing at Semple Stadium or Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney?

The boss of the Academy of Munster, Ian Costello. Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Reaching the rest of the province beyond Limerick is key, involving clubs and schools at a much higher level, Leinster-style, and winning people back.

On a positive note, there is plenty of local goodwill for Munster Academy manager Ian Costello, a man with strong AIL roots.

“Cozzy gets it,” is how a club loyalist put it and hopefully he and others in the Munster setup can start pushing things in the right direction.

Because right now the only direction the Munster is going is backwards.

Joan J. Holland