Sunday 25 February 2018

Win some, lose some: Ireland’s rising rugby stars began their playing careers on Gaelic pitches

Keith Earls (in red and black) playing GAA in his younger days
Keith Earls (in red and black) playing GAA in his younger days
Connor Murray as a schoolboy
Conor Murray lines out for Limerick City

Barry Duggan

IT may just make the GAA wince. There has long been anecdotal evidence that the country's biggest sporting organisation has been losing the hearts and minds of younger stars.

And on Saturday, the country will be glued to their television screens as three former underage football stars from Limerick alone are among the players taking to the pitch in Ireland's Rugby World Cup quarter final.

Conor Murray (22), Keith Earls (24) and Sean Cronin (25) are all hoping to start Ireland's game in Wellington. But there was a time when all three were more at home with the bounce of a round ball.

Joe Lyons of Cumann na mBunscol said Conor was talented enough to play with Limerick's national schools' football team in 2002.

"Conor was a fine GAA player and wore the number 12 jersey for Limerick in the primary football game against Kerry in the Gaelic Grounds in 2002," Mr Lyons told the Irish Independent.

"There was a couple thousand at it -- ahead of the senior match -- so he was well used to the large crowds at a young age."

All three played with Limerick City in the Sarsfield Cup -- a Cumann na mBunscol interdivisional competition. And while still a teenager, Cronin helped his GAA club -- Monaleen -- win a county senior football championship in 2005.

Yesterday, members of Murray's extended family from Patrickswell were jetting out to New Zealand from Shannon Airport.

His cousin, Gearoid Balfry, and uncle, Michael Woulfe, hope to meet up with the scrum-half tomorrow.

Mr Balfry said his cousin was "living the dream" after coming from relative obscurity six months ago.

He is now rivalling Eoin Reddan to be the country's leading scrum-half -- and is tipped to start the quarter-final against Wales.

"He was only used to getting games with Munster this year and look at him now -- he is living every boy's dream," Mr Balfry said.

"You could tell he would excel at sports and his whole family are delighted for him.

"We fly to Heathrow then on to Hong Kong before Auckland. Conor's mother, Barbara, and sister, Aisling, are already out there and we will meet up with them," he added.

The Irish team held a training session at the ASB Indoor Sports Centre in Wellington yesterday but it was soccer -- and not Gaelic -- that was played when rugby balls were not in hand.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Earls -- who celebrated his birthday on Sunday with two World Cup tries -- looked just as comfortable in either code.

He is nailed on to start on Saturday, while Sean Cronin is also expected to line out if Rory Best fails to recover from injury.

Irish Independent

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