Sunday 23 July 2017

Great rugby city facing life on the margins

Hugh Farrelly

"Beautiful city, charming and pretty, beautiful city, my home by the Lee."

So goes the song, rather exaggerating the aesthetic merits of a conurbation which includes the social welfare office on its open-top bus tours -- and the lyrics carry little weight for Stephen Ireland, who was reported recently as saying he would "rather be shot" than move back to Cork.

Those comments were way over the top but, as a fellow Rebel who abandoned Cork six years ago, it is possible to relate, in some part, to what this troubled footballer said.

Cork is a big city but still a small town. When you live there into your mid-30s without settling down, the shame starts to follow you around and 'de banks' are embraced simply because the Lee becomes hard to cross with all the bridges you've burnt.

Furthermore, for those of us who struggle with small-talk and remembering names, walking the city centre becomes a duck-and-cover exercise (although use of the eponymous 'boy' does help the identity crisis).

Then, there is Cork's inherent sense of self-regard, the unwavering belief that it is one of the best places in the world to live and deserves to be recognised as such. Hence, you have all the "real capital", "People's Republic" clap-trap along with tedious demands for the cabinet to include a 'Minister for Cork' rather than just the obligatory Cork minister.

It adds up to a pretty sizeable chip ("bigger than your Jackeen chips, boy") on Cork shoulders and, when natives return, there is an accusatory tone to the routine questioning. "So, are you up in Dublin now ... the whole time?", "When are you moving home?", "I'd say you miss the Republic?"

Those are the cons to Cork, but there are plenty of pros. Moving back permanently may not be on the agenda but it is a cracking city to visit. The pints of Beamish represent quality, affordable imbibing; Cork slagging surpasses that available anywhere else in Ireland (including the over-hyped 'Dublin wit') and then there is the sport -- the primary reason to be proud of your Cork roots.

The county seems to produce a special type of sportsperson, one that is driven to succeed. The three examples most regularly cited are Christy Ring, Roy Keane and Sonia O'Sullivan -- arguably the finest practitioners of their chosen sports to come out of Ireland -- and Cork has a pretty impressive production line when it comes to rugby also.

There is the argument that, historically, there were only four urban centres for rugby (Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast) and the law of averages dictates each would have a significant role.

Nonetheless, that does not explain an impressive list of captains from Tom Kiernan to Donal Lenihan, Michael Bradley and Terry Kingston, while there is a Cork spine to the current side from prop Mike Ross, second-row Donncha O'Callaghan, scrum-half Peter Stringer and out-half Ronan O'Gara. Throw in coach Declan Kidney and Cork's relevance to Irish rugby is as powerful as ever.

There is also Cork talent coming through over the next few years. Second-row Ian Nagle is living up to his billing, his Cork Constitution team-mate Cathal O'Flaherty has the ability to make the grade in a major way and UCC prop John Ryan, from Inniscarra, is held in the highest regard by those whose opinions deserve to be respected.

Downturn

But, what's coming after that? Limerick has always been regarded as the true home of Munster rugby, while the fact that plans to develop Musgrave Park into a 20,000-plus stadium have been shelved indefinitely due to the economic downturn, means Cork is likely to be increasingly marginalised.

As it is, Cork is only getting the runts of the Magners League litter, and Munster's last fixture against the Dragons drew just over 6,000 to Musgrave Park -- if that amount had turned up in the 26,000-capacity Thomond there would have been talk of a major crisis.

Munster's split between two bases appears increasingly anachronistic and if/when the decision is taken to centre the operation in Limerick, there will be knock-on effects down the line.

Tomorrow, O'Gara should achieve a major milestone by passing 1,000 international points, while Kidney is six months out from, hopefully, overseeing Ireland's first foray into a World Cup semi-final.

Those facts alone keep Cork in the picture, but that situation could become hard to sustain and, to paraphrase the song, turn this beautiful rugby city into a 'haven of unrest'.

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