ROLLING DOWN MEMORY LANE – EP. 5

Two Mottos Anyone Would Do Well To Live By

In one of the early kilometres of this nostalgic journey, mention was made of the fact that for a time in my life horse racing was absolutely detested in this seat. Now read on…

As bad as that was, and as strange as it seems now, even to myself, given the way life has turned, rugby was even lower down the pecking order. As in, not on it at all. Part of that was my lack of understanding of the game. Put bluntly and at my own expense, thinking it was simply a load of fat lads running around jumping on top of each other.

To some extent, back in the day that wasn’t entirely inaccurate. However, I think most of my apathy towards the oval ball code stemmed from the fact that, on the one hand, the Triple Crown successes of 1982 and 1985 were before my time and that, by the time I was becoming properly attuned to the sporting world Irish rugby was dross.

Now, as is nearly always the case, there were exceptions to both of the above scenarios. For some reason, Michael Kiernan’s drop goal against England is remembered with crystal clarity. The following should be no surprise, but so, also, are the all too brief few years the team and the fortunes thereof were eleftrified by the contributions of Simon Geoghegan.

Simon Geoghegan on the way to scoring his iconic try against England in 1994.

Keith Wood, however, deserves accreditation as the man who fully converted me onto the side of his area of expertise. Why? He was a maverick. Anyone that has even paid a cursory glance at these pages over the years will know the fondness I have for these type of characters. Think Brennan, Keane, Carberry, Geraghty, Colin Lynch and John Mullane – you get the picture. And ‘Woody’ was every bit one of them as well.

The man who resembles Uncle Fester from The Addams Family in more ways than one very definitely did things his way on the pitch. A hooker kicking the ball would still be a rarity in rugby, but, when the Garryowen clubman was vying with Sean Fitzpatrick for declaration as the best No. 2 in world rugby it was almost unheard of.

Keith Wood was the standout player of his era

Naturally, the Limerick man had to put his own twist on matters. Not content with kicking the ball in a defensive sense – which would have been unique enough in itself – he is recalled scoring at least one drop goal throughout his highly decorated career. Though it’s probable most people will best recall his try against England in 2001. If you recall, the fixture was deferred from its usual Spring date owing to the Foot And Mouth outbreak. What didn’t change, though, was the parameter that if Ireland derailed the chariot it would stop its occupants attaining the Grand Slam. Which Wood’s five point score duly did!

FAMILY TIES

How often have you seen it in this space previously stated that even a bit of a personal connection can ratchet up interest in and passion for anything. For me, it ended up being a similar story with rugby. Two fold on that score actually. In that, not only did my brother Des reside in Limerick for five years – where the sport is closer to a religion than a pass time – but, in more recent times, my other brother Paul has become very well acquainted with The Tullow Tank himself, Sean O’Brien.

The Tullow Tank: 2011 European Player Of The Year Sean O’Brien

Over the years, yours truly has been the butt of a fair bit of ribbing because, in a ‘club’ rugby sense, first leanings were always towards Munster. With most people, the ‘digs’ were very much in jest. There’s always one, mind you, that can’t see things for what they are and take their wind-ups too far. For those new to these parts, however, the story is as follows. It was when Des was living down south that he got bitten bitten by the bug. It’s nigh on impossible down there not. And the way it is, if you’re in, you’re totally in.

The graduation from going to All Ireland League games in places of renown such as Dooradoyle and Tom Clifford Park to European Cup games – at home and away – to several Lions Tours at the other end of the world happens very quickly. Wasn’t it always likely, then, with the brother getting lured in hook, line and sinker by the whole scene that it’d eventually rub off on me? It would be ventured that, at this stage, Baseball remains the sole discipline in which there remains absolutely zero interest in this seat.

Being surrounded by talk of Munster Rugby, and indeed its’ fine people, suffice to say it was thence the grounding required to get me totally onside with affairs of the scrum and ruck and maul and breakdown took place. To the extent that, eventually, it was a case of being overcome with curiosity and a desire to see what all the fuss was about. Which was in time made possible thanks to some of the wonderful friends Des, and by extension we as a family, have made down there.

A PROPHETIC MISTAKE?

There was a time when Meath GAA teams mopped up provincial titles at underage level more regularly than Donald Trump makes an ass of himself. Yes, really. One such occasion was in 1991 when they captured the U-21 crown. The victory qualified them for an All Ireland semi final against Kerry with the game fixed for the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick.

At the time, a trip to such a venue would’ve been a major undertaking to the senior citizen in our house. So much so that his venturing forth was a little bit surprising to say the least. Mind you, there’s no doubt the decision to do so was majorly influenced by the presence of Enda McManus and Tony Byrne in the setup.

Even though I’d started going to matches the previous year, not to mention been to a clatter of fixtures that summer, I obviously wasn’t deemed fit enough for a run or a day of such length. All the games I’d been to at thay stage had been in GAA HQ.

A journey of that magnitude was obviously considered beyond my stamina reserves at the time. I don’t know anything about the match itself aside from that Meath lost. There is one story about the day as a whole which now resonates profoundly. Is there such a thing as a prophetic mistake? Surely the following confirms in the affirmative.

Not knowing the geography of the area, then, our touring party saw goalposts and assumed they had reached their destination. Only to discover that they had, in fact, pulled up outside Thomond Park!

A visit to Thomond Park is always an uplifting experience which everyone should do at least once

Now, knowing how big a part of life the aforementioned place became for Des, I eventually wanted ‘In’. And, thanks to some of the friends we’ve made down there, in this case the McCarthy brothers, Brian and James, it came to pass for the first time seven years ago. I’ve often written about James’s deeds as a two-time Paralympian, wheelchair rugby player and wheelchair hurler, and, the man who made my ambition of getting to Thomond at least once a reality.

Except it’s been a lot more than once. In fact, at least one trip a season to the Treaty City is always planned every season. Regrettably, it didn’t happen last term and won’t this time either due to the chaos perpetrated on society by COVID19. As soon as life does return to whatever constitutes normal, the imbalance will be addressed rather quickly.

Thomond Park has the best disabled viewing facilities of any venue I’ve ever been to

If any extra motivation were required to head back into McManus Country – which there isn’t – it manifests itself in knowing that 30 years of attending sporting events across a variety of codes has yet to show me anywhere near the standard of disabled facilities, both viewing and otherwise, there are at the home of Munster, Shannon and UL Bohemians Rugby.

From the moment you arrive at the ground, the arrangements and assistance on hand are something never encountered at any other venue. And I include Old Trafford in that. Whether it’s disembarking and parking in the Players’ Carpark, or the fact there are multiple raised viewing platforms, with special reserved lifts to the one in the middle of the stand (pictured above) which, naturally enough, is in out of the climatic elements.

But, the real beauty of the place is in something which is highly difficult to define. Strip away the games and the fans and the staff and the facilities. I often think the ground itself – yes, the bricks and mortar, the goalposts, the grass – has an aura about it that could be as mystifying if the old place were populated only by seagulls than if the rafters were creaking on a European occasions.

Mr Sponsorship: With my good friend, proud Clare man and sports fanatic Martin Donnelly in the bowels of Thomond

If one were to try and encapsulate it properly, it might suffice to say the Munster rugby is not just a team. Supporting the team so much more than merely a passtime. It’s a way of life. Which is enshrined and espoused by its people.

It’s important to say people to make the distinction as it takes the journey back to where my fondness for the Red Army. It started thus, because, like Des, it was there this corner got a proper grounding in and understanding of the sport. And, what it means to folk lucky enough to have got caught upnin Munster rugby story.

For, you see, despite the grief I and a few around me have endured over the years, we were and are far from alone in having a soft spot for the 2006 and 2008 victors despite not being from the province.

On one of our outings into the deep south, not only had we my Dub mate Eoghan D’Arcy, who was driving, we also had a mate of his, Clive Worley from Drimnagh, who had also crossed to the ‘dark side’! And it wasn’t only folk from Dublin either. Not by a long shot.

People from as far afield as Leitrim and Donegal and Sligo have been known to become emotionally invested in the Munster rugby story. Very easy to see why. Forget about beating the All Blacks. Forget about the storied names: Keane, Ward, Galwey, Clohessy, Foley, O’Connell, Hayes, Stringer, O’Gara. The list could go on infinitely.

However, simply consider the two maxims most closely associated with Munster Rugby. ‘To the brave and the faithful nothing is impossible’, and, ‘Stand Up And Fight’. The latter is, of course, a song. One which is actually more associated with boxing. Mind you, not only do both dictums sum up Munster perfectly, they are two mottoes anyone would do well to live by.

Yours truly has certainly taken strength, comfort and inspiration from both proclamations repeatedly in the last half decade or so. Perhaps poignantly fittingly, especially around the time of shock and devastation about the sudden passing of Anthony Foley in Octoher 2016.

‘Axel’ was the embodiment of everything Munster Rugby stood for. Their spiritual leader on the field, and off it for all too short a period. Though you can be sure he is and will always be doing so from behind the scrum machine afar. Foley’s influence surely needed no further underscoring than to observe the impact his passing had. Not only in rugby circles either.

How often have you heard it said that sport breaks down barriers? Or, in my case, that it means so much more than the material results of what actually transpires on a pitch or racecourse or golf course or dart board or basketball court or whatever it may be. To me, it’s more about the people. The people you meet through sport. Followers and competitors. Sure didn’t I meet the love of my life following Meath!

FAMOUS FRIENDS

Mention was made earlier of the chastising one has received over the years for, solely in terms of rugby, leaning towards Munster rather than my own province. Not all of it in jest either. With the latter minority, the tendency is to portray anyone appreciative of Munster’s longevity of brilliance as being ‘anti-Leinster’. Complete bovine excrement. I’ve already spent more column inches explaining than Johnny Sexton has hours addressing place kicks.

Yes, there may be the odd ‘D4’ jibe. Like it or not, the type do exist. It’s a topic Eamonn Sweeney could generate a column out of to rival his ‘Hurling Man’ piece. Difference being he’d have even more material with which to work. You see, the majority of Leinster fans wouldn’t be at all enamored by the facade put on by the few. People such as my late friend Padraig Fitzgerald – GAA man, racing man and rugby man, heavily invested invested in Edenderry RFC.

That is not to say that the Leinster team aren’t admired. Of course they are. Their high level of achievement deserves utmost commendation. Good sport will always be admired in this seat. No matter what it is, or whom it is performed by. Such a stance has enabled me to acquire some famous friends along the way.

On our most recent ramble down memory lane, a few encounters with Dublin’s Paul Curran were recalled. A time before that, it was how I crossed paths with Noel Meade. Trevor Brennan and Graham Geraghty are just a couple of the well known stars I’ve become acquainted with – and that’s putting it very mildly in some cases over the years.

Mind you, there was one rendezvous that occurred a couple of years back which never would have been expected. It was their shared interest in a particular pass time which brought Paul and Sean O’Brien together a few years back. In time, it wasn’t unusual for the great Carlow man to dock in these parts on a nearly weekly basis.

I’d met him once before – after admittedly initially not recognising him – but this particular evening a heads up was given that, not only was he on his way out, he was bringing somebody with him that it mightn’t mind meeting either. Talk about being like a kid on Christmas morning, or, the example I often use myself, like the occupant of this seat on the morning of the first day of the Cheltenham Festival each year!

Peter O’Mahony: My favourite current rugby player

The ‘Somebody else’ turned out to be Munster Captain, Irish and Lions back-row forward Peter O’Mahony. Imagine having two of the best back rows in the world yards from your front door – at the same time! It was before one of the Guinness Series games in Dublin when our visitors had snook out of the team hotel for a bit of R and R. Needless to say, both men were very accommodating and most generous with their time before heading off to indulge in what they were out this way to do.

Without doubt, though, the highlight of the all too brief time that was spent in their company was the gestful banter between the two. As far as can be recalled, the two great rival Irish teams were playing each other the week after the international game, with the adopted members of the Red Army in situ.

As you might expect, the pair of super scrummagers knew what the craic was as to where loyalties lay as regards supporting intentions. Not surprisingly, after spending even only a while in their company one could deduce they were fully in on the funny side of it. To the extent that, the main snippet that is still recalled from that wintry November evening was one saying of the other, in good humour, “He’ll spend 80 minutes next week trying to choke me”!

Wouldn’t you know it, then, that after the build-up and expectation, neither of them made it to the pitch that weekend at all! Leinster emerged triumphant that Saturday evening. The only time the home side lost when the expedition down was made by our crew. Unfortunately, it turned out to he like the situation with the buses, another defeat followed fairly shortly thereafter their defeat by Scarlets in the final of what is now the PRO 14 at the Aviva Stadium was also taken in first hand.

MEATH’S GOLDEN MILE

A couple of years back, an entire post was produced under the above head. In two parts in fact. Pertaining to the few miles of road between Moynalvey and Summerhill and the amount of varied sporting talent that has emerged from the area. Think about some of the names even – GAA: Lyons, O’Reilly, Harnan, O’Sullivan. Horse Racing: Gordon and Joey Elliott, Robbie Power, Tony Martin, Ger Lyons. And, for the purposes of today’s offering, there’s been high achievers emanating from that locality in the oval ball sphere also.

At the time the original piece with the above headline was produced lauding the feats of Gordon Elliott who’d just had an outstanding Cheltenham Festival and trained Tiger Roll to win the Aintree Grand National. Something he repeated again the following year and would at the very least have made a valiant attempt at completing the most unlikely of hat-tricks had current circumstances not thrown the entire world into chaos.

As well as the aforementioned, however, the other main focus of the post – which as well as being when National Hunt racing season was abuzz, was also towards the peak of the rugby season – was to afford due acclaim to Devin Toner after his third annexation of a Six Nations Championship medal.

Devin Toner: Defenestrated by Joe Schmidt; Recalled by Andy Farrell.

With the famine for current sport showing no signs of being sated any time shortly, one has had to dine on copious courses of nostalgia in order to maintain some degree of sanity. Or as much as is normally there anyway. Earlier in the series, recollections of the four game saga between Meath and Dublin, as well as Meath’s long and winding route to their 1996 All Ireland win and some very memorable horse races have all been rehashed.

It will have to be admitted that not a whole pile can be recalled from Leinster’s opening pair of Heineken Cup victories. Save for them extricating themselves from an apparently hopeless looking plight against Northampton Saints after half time in the 2011 showpiece. Trailing 6-22 at the short whistle, there was a sense, later confirmed by O’Brien to be factually accurate, that Sexton not only metaphorically grabbed the Leinster team but the entire game, by the scruff of the neck and set about the most unlikely of retrieval missions.

Three tries followed, a pair from Billy Keane’s Godson – which he converted himself – and one from Scottish lock Nathan Hines, for which the extras were also tagged on. As current coach Leo Cullen was Hines’s second row partner, at that stage, Moynalvey’s Toner was among the replacements that day.

His role and status would soon increase, mind you. And how. It wasn’t just with Leinster and Ireland either. He became respected and feared on the global stage. The accomplishing of which is even more noteworthy when it’s considered that Toner’s blossoming came at a time when he was assuming the role of leader of the Irish lineout. I was going to say replacing Paul O’Connell, but that would be akin to trying to take over from Jesus!

Yet, Joe Schmidt somehow, unfathomably, managed to omit him from his World Cup squad last winter. The former Castleknock College student had, to my mind at least, did nothing wrong and, as much as I’ve a soft spot for Munster, to include somebody like Jean Klyne in his stead was not only ridiculous it was an insult to one of the greatest – if most underrated – players of his generation.

Time has proven indignation felt at Toner’s exclusion to be not only merited, but shared. As evidenced by the decision of newly appointed coach Andy Farrell to recall him in his squad for what sadly looks like being a truncated, unfinished Six Nations Championship. With uncertainty at best enveloping the sporting world, and with the player having already turned 33, you’d wonder, depending on how long the hiatus lasts, how many more opportunities he’ll get to engage in the wearing of the green.

Hugh O’Sullivan is part of an exceptionally talented Meath sporting family.

If, however, it transpires that Devin doesn’t get the chance to lead the line(out) again, it wouldn’t at all surprise if there was another Meath man ready to step in and continue Meath’s fine tradition of representation in the oval ball arena. Not only that, but actually another Moynalvey man in Hugh O’Sullivan. The latest generation in one of Meath’s most storied sporting dynasties. His father Frank soldiered with the Meath footballers in the very lean years, older brother Cillian is currently a star in green and gold while eldest sibling Mark has also represented the county at the highest level in both hurling and football.

Researching for this episode imparted the knowledge that Bellewstown’s Shane Horgan is actually Leinster’s record try scorer with 69. Instinctive guesses would have said either Brian O’Driscoll or Gordon D’Arcy. Especially given that the latter is actually the record holder in terms of appearances in blue.

One thing Hugh, however, has going for him is versatility. Something you don’t often see in rugby as certain players seem perfectly suited for particular positions. You couldn’t for example visualise Peter Stringer as a fullback or Sean O’Brien on the wing, could you? Whereas O’Sullivan’s standing as a utility back and/or scrum half could and should open a lot of doors for him going forward.

Having served the formative part of his rugby career at fullback on a talented team in Belvedere College SJ – alma mater of none other than Sean Boylan – Mick Dawson, Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster at Leinster have transformed him into an effective scrum half. While on his profile on the Leinster Rugby page on Wikipedia as a winger.

The latter would actually be no surprise considering the pace his two older brothers are renowned for on GAA pitches.

Seeing the expected progression of his burgeoning career taking hold is one of the few flickers of light at the end of the current dark tunnel just about keeping these wheels turning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s