Cork's impact on the success of Munster rugby has been vastly underrated 

Cork's impact on the success of Munster rugby has been vastly underrated 
Munster players Paul O'Connell, Peter Stringer and Alan Quinlan celebrate the win over Biarritz in the Heineken Cup at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

AS MUNSTER faced down the home straight of their historic first Heineken Cup final victory over Biarritz in Cardiff back in 2006 they made two significant substitutions.

Anthony Foley and Paul O’Connell, the two totemic leaders of the team, were called ashore in the 71st and 76th minutes, respectively, to be replaced by Mick O’Driscoll and Alan Quinlan.

Two good replacements, to be fair, but it seems strange now to think Declan Kidney took them both off in the dying minutes, with Munster holding on to a precarious 23-19 lead.

Strangely, only one other substitution was made that day, when Marcus Horan was replaced by Federico Pucciariello in the 63rd minute.

Of course, yours truly, being both a good friend as well as being hilarious, turned to my Limerick friend in the aftermath and remarked that clearly Kidney wanted all the Limerick lads off the pitch for the last five minutes, as he didn’t want them to do what the Limerick hurlers did in ’94, etc.

Who needs enemies eh?

And while a joke, it still brings to the fore a salient point. While images of O’Connell Street in Limerick were being blared out on the big screen in the Millennium Stadium that day, Cork did not get a mention.

Cork has become almost an afterthought in the great Munster rugby adventure, yet without Cork it would have never happened.

For the record, at the final whistle there were six Cork players on the pitch, to Limerick’s three.

Anthony Horgan, John Kelly, Ronan O’Gara, Peter Stringer, Mick O’Driscoll and Donnacha O’Callaghan the Leesiders that played their part.

Ronan O’Gara. Picture: INPHO/Patrick Bolger
Ronan O’Gara. Picture: INPHO/Patrick Bolger

In 2008 there was, bizarrely, the exact same number of Cork and Limerick men on the pitch at the end of the win over Toulouse at the same venue.

Historically, Cork gave an awful lot to the Munster cause, from the likes of Tom Kiernan, Moss Finn, Greg Barrett, Jim Bowen and Christy Cantillon who were all heavily involved in the Munster victory over the All Blacks in 1978.

Later the likes of Michael Kiernan, Ralph Keyes, Michael Bradley, Pat O’Hara, Donal Lenihan, Paul McCarthy, Kenny Murphy, Brian Walsh, David Corkery, Terry Kingston and Ken O’Connell gave as much, with some of the Cork Con contingent in that group being part of the team that won the first All-Ireland League title in 1991.

The Limerick clubs took over, winning seven in a row between them before Con struck again in 1999, to remind them that Munster rugby wasn’t all about Limerick.

By then the provincial game was on the cusp of overtaking the club scene as the big show in town.

Munster’s near-miss in 2000 the spark of it all.

At the time Limerick had a bigger representation than Cork on the starting 15 — although note that some of the ‘Limerick’ contingent might have officially been from Clare, but you know what I mean.

This all changed very quickly though and remains the case to this day. In fact, Limerick players in the Munster squad have become somewhat of an endangered species in recent times.

In the pack, you have loosehead prop Dave Kilcoyne, and… no one else. Kilcoyne is it. Second row Paddy Kelly is in the academy, but we have reached the stage where Waterford and Tipperary are producing more academy forwards than Limerick now.

It gets a little bit better for Limerick in the backline. Keith Earls the big name of course, while Dan Goggin and Calvin Nash are still trying to make the big breakthrough.

Scrum-half remains the big anomaly, with three of Munster’s number 9s being from Shannonside territory. Conor Murray the alpha dog, Neil Cronin and the great white hope Craig Casey.

Strangely, Limerick has never produced a quality outhalf in the professional era. Even looking at Munster’s exciting three prospects in the position, while Jake Flannery and Ben Healy play for Shannon and Garryowen, respectively, they both come from Tipp.

In fact, that has been the running theme for a while now with regards Limerick’s clubs, ie all the big prospects who play for Shannon, Garryowen, and Young Munster are all from outside Limerick. As well as Healy and Flannery just mentioned, Jack Daly from Kerry is at Garryowen, Thomas Ahern from Waterford and Eoghan Clarke from Dublin are at Shannon.

Thank God for West Cork. Winger Liam Coombes from Skibbereen is at Garryowen, while his backrow cousin Gavin is at Young Munster, as are the Wycherley brothers from Bantry, Fineen and Josh.

Other big Munster prospects, John Hodnett from Rosscarbery, and Jack Crowley (below) from Bandon, are at UCC and Con respectively. Perhaps it’s time to move Thomond Park to Timoleague!

Which brings us to Thomond Park, which has become somewhat of a noose around Munster’s neck in financial terms. Munster rugby still has almost €7m worth of a loan from the IRFU to pay off on the back of the stadium build over a decade ago.

It may have seemed the right thing to do to rebuild Munster’s Mecca back then, but hindsight may challenge that notion now.

To build a stadium in the middle of the second biggest population centre in the province was a romantic decision, but financially, it was the wrong one.

Thomond was rebuilt as a 26,000 capacity stadium, which has proved to be too big bar a few big European games. Leinster play at the RDS, which has a capacity of 18,500, and is sufficient for their needs, although it must be noted they also have the Aviva Stadium at their disposal as, and when, they need it.

Given that Cork has the biggest population, and produces the most players, it is clear that Munster’s home ground should have been in Cork, with Thomond Park being the secondary ground, as Musgrave Park is today.

Unfortunately, the horse has bolted a long time ago on this decision. We will not be seeing an 18,000-seater rugby stadium in Cork anytime soon, even though Cork’s rugby heritage and influence probably warrants it.

Peter Stringer scores a try. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Peter Stringer scores a try. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

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