Tuesday 27 September 2016

Billy Keane: A child's surge of excitement each time I approach the miracle field

Published 10/12/2012 | 17:00

THE red-brick terraced house on the High Road to Thomond Park was a shrine to Santa Claus, Munster and The Blessed Virgin.

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Red banners draped the front walls and the tablecloth of grass in the garden was hardly seen under the canopy of planted Munster flags. Santa is small. He stood there, minding his own business. Resting up.

Next to the corner flag, on a rockery, was a blue robed, life-size statue of Our Lady. The statue was covered in see-through sheeting to protect her from the elements. A spot shone on her serene face. From the loving care, you could see the people who lived in the house say their prayers to our universal mother. Don't we all?

I always recite a few in-head Hail Marys on the way to big games. For my team. Munster were playing Saracens, the English giants. Most of the pundits had written us off. Always a good sign.

Up the High Road we went. It's not really high at all. I have seen many low roads much higher.

In the near distance was Thomond Park, the sailboat stadium. There's a kid's surge of excitement when you see the red vertical stands and the nautical lines before you. Thomond is a stately tall ship in dry dock.

No matter how often I come here, the heart pounds. It's a mix of elation and trepidation. You just know there's a fierce battle to be fought on the field of miracle matches and where the All Blacks were not only beaten, but held scoreless.

There was hardly room to walk that last few hundred yards. The throng were quiet. Sparing their throats for the team. Foggy breaths smelled faintly of beer but no one was drunk. The coffee shop aroma wafts out and triggers receptors that just make you want to order a brew. There are no baristas here. The mobile chippers fry onions. The smell would tempt the Weightwatcher of the Year.

Almost in now and I feel an arm around my shoulder. It's one of my closest friends. He's John Brookes, a solicitor from Mitchelstown and a very good one too. We were in college together. I used to call him my secretary. I was always bumming his notes. It was as if we were still in first year in UCC all those years ago and we settled into each other's company like a favourite fireside chair. That's the thing about these big nights out, we always meet old friends you haven't met for ages. There's a communal friendship too. The very wearing of the jersey is an invitation to talk. Formalities are frowned upon. They are here as one from counties who would hurl hurls at each other every summer in GAA games.

These are the real fans unlike the internet gits, picking zits in the Satanic glow of laptops. They are not the Munster I come from. These sheep worriers in underpants who knock their own players are bullies and cowards. One of our greatest Munster heroes asked me to make it clear the effect of cyber bullying on mental health is not confined to school kids. Young players suffer and often pine away. It's not confined to Munster; the plague's all Ireland.

Back to the good people. Inside the ground the singing of 'Stand Up and Fight' would mobilise the Quakers. Twenty something thousand cheered and sang as one. The world record for wearing red Santa hats was broken by Third World charity Bothar.

The Saracens were a ferocious fighting force in the Middle East and slaughtered a multitude of Crusaders. Not one of these English Saracens volunteered to take a bullet for the team when Ronan O'Gara put that first drop off high into the Thomond Sky. You just knew then we were going to win.

Ronan kicked 15 points in the quiet of a confession box in Rio on the night of the carnival. There is a code of silence in Thomond when a free kick is being taken. Andy Farrell the Saracens kicker couldn't handle it and so we won. Andy wouldn't be the first man who cracked under the silent treatment.

M Gauzerre, the French referee, has a whistle built into his voice box. Every time he breathes, he blows. I wouldn't put him in charge of deciding who gets the half with the prize when a Christmas cracker is torn apart.

You will never walk home alone. It's as if the people here in this city rebuilt are trying to make up for the bad boys who have dragged down the good name of Limerick. Nowhere will you ever experience such kindness and unfailing hospitality. Thousands come in on big rugby weekends. Many haven't even a precious tickets and it's a big party.

Rugby is classless in Limerick and always has been. There are still massive problems with social inclusion but at least Limerick is trying. We will end on a high note on The High Road. Limerick is entitled to that much and more.

After the game, the joyous Colin Halloran was waving a wide red flag wildly in the shrine. It was his grandparent's house. "Granddad put up everything," he said proudly and Our Lady of the High Road smiled lovingly on the polite young boy from the home of rugby.

Irish Independent

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