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Young Munster Memories from Tony Ward

In September 1974 I arrived in Limerick along with the best part of a hundred aspiring young PE students from every corner of the island. Only weeks earlier I had been accepted into the then National College of Physical Education (NCPE) to commence a four year degree course in the recently opened campus (shared with NIHE) in Plassey.

Academically my future course was mapped but in sporting terms I was wet behind the ears. I had been to Limerick on a few occasions but almost always in a soccer context either to Priory Park with the Dublin and District (DDSL) Youth team or the Markets Field with Shamrock Rovers as my playing career was – I thought – destined for the round ball game with Rovers my local team and the club I supported since knee high to a grasshopper.

I had been to Thomond Park once (with the Leinster schoolboys) but only as a replacement half back along with John Robbie where we watched an extraordinary underage talent wear the Munster number 15 shirt. Gerry Grant (little did I think I would get to know brother Tony and how our paths would cross in the quest for League and Cup honours over the years) was some player at underage alas – and I still don’t know why – he went off the rugby radar.

Naïve in sporting knowledge I was but six months in Limerick and all that had changed. In retrospect my introduction to rugby was crazy. Having lost Johnny Moroney, their then out half to injury, Garryowen were searching frantically for a replacement ten. The connection was Shay Deering as he and I had attended the same school in Dublin (St Mary’s) albeit six years apart. His twin brothers David and Kevin were also wing forwards and both in my year so while he didn’t know me well at that stage he knew of me through the twins.

That tenuous link resulted in me heading out to Dooradoyle and within three weeks and three cup matches against the ‘Well, Crescent (captained by Len Dineen) and ‘Con (the final played in Cork) I had a Munster Cup medal in my pocket that meant practically nothing. Four years on and three more cup finals (two on the losing side to Shannon) but when in ’79 we got the better of a certain club from Greenfields in arguably the most dour final of all time (Garryowen 3 ‘Munsters 0) that winners medal meant the world.

The AIL may have still been a decade away but it was through Munster cup rugby that the seeds for All Ireland success were sown and perhaps more relevantly why Munster Rugby hit the ground running when the professional game and the Heineken Cup specifically came into being. I defy anyone argue otherwise.

It was tough uncompromising competitive rugby but the sense of purpose was great. I loved those years and despite being hounded by the John Hayes’s, the Gerry Quaids, the Johnny Barrys, the Jim McNamaras, the Ger McMahons of this world I enjoyed the challenge every bit as much.

To show just how wet I was, when we drew Sunday’s Well in that opening cup game in 1975 I hadn’t a clue who they were or where they were from. For some reason swimming was what came most immediately to mind. But believe me when I say I wasn’t slow in learning. Likewise about Shannon, ‘Munsters, ‘Crescent and Bohs too. Alongside me in that cup winning Garryowen squad that year were two other ‘youngsters’ destined to go on and become stalwarts in black and amber and black and blue respectively. Mick Sheehan was one tough back row dude and Noel Glynn the original Duracell bunny at hooker. Mick and Noely went on to become forward pillars at Greenfields and Thomond Park in their playing time.

Cup or League games, be they at Clifford Park, Dooradoyle or Thomond were never ones for the feint of heart. As a player ‘the film star’ as I was so anointed by the Greenfield faithful was a prime target and by God he knew it! Getting caught at the bottom of a ruck in a sea of black and amber was not a good place to be. Every game was played on the edge with the only satisfaction in winning. Pa Whelan got that message through to me early in my decade or so on Shannonside and it never, ever left.

But they were great times, great games, great characters and great memories particularly from local south city derbies against a club that will forever hold a special place in my heart. I love everything about Young Munster RFC because for me the Cookies (bear in mind we were so respectful we never dared use the nickname that has become synonymous with the club in more recent times) epitomise the classless heart and soul of rugby in the Treaty city.

I often wonder who it was responsible for coining the term Cookies in the first place? My earliest memory goes back to Brendan Foley and regularly he would be giving the likes of Jim Brislane, Gerry Quaid, John Hayes, Brendan O’Connor, Pat Cross, Gerry Casey and others involved in the Munster set up the ‘Cookie Monster’ going over. Maybe someone from within the club – I am thinking Johnny Brennan here – might enlighten me on that one.

I have made mention of Tony Grant who was not alone a great scrum half but a coaching guru way ahead of his time. What he achieved with ‘Munsters and the manner in which he went about his business as chief buck cat was a feat of its time. For a club honed on forward play the transformation to running rugby particularly in the late seventies culminating in that sensational cup final win over Bohemians in 1980 was extraordinary. It was then the seeds were sown for further cup wins in ’84 and ’90 all leading to the biggest day of all – yes bigger even than Danaher Sheahan and the daring deeds of ‘28 – when ‘Munster backboned by players who had come through the underage system made it to the top of the All Ireland tree in beating St Mary’s before a record attendance just south of 20,000 at the old Lansdowne Road in 1993.

Inspired by Dodo and her dogs the best team playing the best rugby got the result and title they deserved and in fairness to ‘Mary’s nobody but nobody at Templeville has ever bitched about the outcome on the day then or since. The Bateman Ghost had finally been put to rest.

I know I am opening a can of worms in attempting to recall some of the Greenfields’ greats I would have played with and against over the years but in addition to those already referred to, try this and in no particular order; Eddie Costello, Eamon Madden, Richie Daly, Francis Brosnihan, Pat ‘Skippy’ Fitzgibbon, Ger Clohessy, Peter Meehan, Ray Ryan, Micky Moore, Brian O’Connor, John ‘Paco’ Fitzgerald, Terry Brogan, John Moloney and Derek McCarthy. I think others like Mikey Benson, Peter Clohessy, Ger Earls, Ger Copeley, Aiden O’Halloran, Derek Tobin, Niall McNamara and Declan Edwards came after I had called it a day. And of course to that illustrious list add the most famous ‘Munster’s man of all a certain PJ O’Connell. It may be a different game with different professional commitments but black and amber curses through Paulie’s veins. In the same breath might I add the name Mikey Prendergast. I would put the former Munster scrum half right up there amongst the coaching visionaries of the modern game. One definitely chiselled from the same revolutionary coaching stone as that number nine by the name of Grant many moons ago.

Off the field some of the iconic legends I got to know better than well included the inimitable Charlie St George and Tom Clifford. To that add the Brennan brothers Johnny and Paddy (although Paddy’s real passion was always music), Sam Browne, as well as Joe Kennedy who was in so many ways the man most associated with Young Munster and with Greenfields throughout his rugby filled life. Joe was also a fantastic servant to Munster long before it was cool to be so. He was a brilliant administrator with whom I had so many dealings over the years. A true gent.

Pat Cross, Gerry Casey and Francis Brosnihan were guys I became particularly close to in my time on Shannonside. All three were central to the change in playing strategy driven by Grant in the late seventies/early eighties and culminating in the biggest day of all in ’93.

PC was a brilliant centre for UCC, for ‘Munsters and for Munster and central to the development of so many players through the extraordinary rugby academy that is St Munchin’s. While Gerry despite, his self deprecation in relation to ‘offering the freedom of Thomond Park to Romania’, is both legendary and modest to a fault. Whether at full back, wing or in his favoured out half slot Gerry was a class act in every respect. I think it highly significant that the same comments apply to his dad in the political sphere.

Forget the ‘Popey punch’ with which Brossy is most synonymous and concentrate instead on one of the most talented sportsmen to cross the sporting divide through rugby, soccer and gaelic football. I’ve no doubt he was pretty nifty with timber in hand too. Indeed if memory serves me right brother Ger was equally multi talented but what marked Francis out (strange calling him that) was his longevity across the three main footballing codes. For the best part of two decades he competed in all three team games. For me he typifies everything Limerick sport stood for back then and continues to do to this day.

Mention of Tom Clifford and quite apart from the legend that needs little elaboration from me comes the memories of meeting up with Jack Burke, Tom and Clem Casey regularly one morning a week for coffee in Jack’s place on Thomas Street at the same time as Dave Mahedy and I along with Harry Gibson-Steele, Anna Clohessy (nee Gibson-Steele) and the self same Brossy ran the Tony Ward Sports Shop in Thomas Street. Happy memories of happy times past.

Sam was and is a great ‘Munsters’ man who loves his round ball game too. Shelbourne was and I presume still is his club. Indeed mention of soccer and proof positive that time stands still for no man comes in the guise of Joe O’Mahony one of the all time Limerick soccer giants. That is fact not opinion. Certainly of the great Eoin Hand side of the early eighties Joe, Al Finucane and Kevin Fitzpatrick were iconic footballers apart. I still find it hard to believe that Joe is no longer with us. He loved the Markets Field and he loved his football but was so proud in calling himself a Young Munster man too.

Joe was dyed in the wool black and amber while Fitzy was and remains still a Shannon man to the core. Never but never did I cover a big match in Clifford Park without bumping into Joe.

In more recent years, I guess through a special mutual interest, I have got to know Derek McCarthy even better still. He is a topper and wow has his boy got it in abundance. I don’t need to sell the merits of young Diarmaid to anybody inside Young Munster terrain but when it comes to the real deal McCarthy the younger has it in spades. He is currently feeling his way with Munster and with the Irish Sevens squad but in making up for a few lost years all I’ll say to those seeing the new age McCarthy or as Derek affectionately refers to him “my lovely boy” for the first time, watch him go. And while I’m at it can I wish Sevens skipper Gearoid Lyons every success in the assault on Rio too.

Beyond that I wish former Queensland Red Tony Mathison nothing but the best in his new role as head coach and likewise every success for the coming season to Chairman of Rugby Darragh O’Sullivan, and to effervescent President Tony Cusack and of course to the players for another fulfilling season of Division IA rugby ahead. That said we’ll draw a line on September 18 and April 1. Do you really need to ask why?

As the late great Dom O’Brien might say ‘come on the boys in b-b-blue’ I say that secure in the knowledge ‘the film star’ will be on the safe side of the Greenfield’s fence!!

120 years young this year and going from strength to strength I feel privileged in merely wishing everybody involved well.

Have a great one. With every best wish