Thursday 18 July 2019

Sinead Kissane: Class differences simply do not apply when it comes to sport in Limerick

It's not just about rugby and hurling in the Treaty County but the two sports play into each other

JP McManus will be cheering on ‘Sporting Limerick’ tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile
JP McManus will be cheering on ‘Sporting Limerick’ tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

When it was announced that 35,000 tickets had already been sold in Limerick the Monday before the All-Ireland hurling semi-final last month, it was like the secret was out that the people of Limerick knew something special was coming the following Sunday. I hopped on board and bought a ticket for Hill 16.

The last time I watched a game on the Hill was 11 years ago in a nerve-wracking All-Ireland football quarter-final when Kerry beat Monaghan by a point.

I fooled myself into thinking that returning to the Hill as a neutral for this hurling semi-final wouldn't be as intense as going to watch my own county play.

But there's no such thing as being neutral - this hurling championship doesn't work like that. And especially when it comes to watching the Limerick hurlers this summer.

I was an outsider on the Hill three weekends ago because nearly everyone else wore their county colours as Cork and Limerick supporters swayed, cheered and made an All-Ireland semi-final feel like a final.

I stood beside a Limerick man in his seventies. When Limerick were six points down with eight minutes left, it was like the life had been sucked out of him. But as Limerick started to shoot their comeback points into the Hill end, I began to watch the game through the rising hopes of this Limerick supporter beside me.

When Pat Ryan scored a goal in extra-time, a strained vantage point meant having to depend on the reaction of others to confirm what had just happened.

The Limerick gentleman beside me started celebrating like nobody was watching. When he turned around his eyes were bursting with disbelief and joy as if he truly could not believe what was unfolding in front of him.

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Watching him celebrate that Limerick victory was the most memorable part of the day and got rid of any notion that you could be neutral watching Limerick.

Limerick have previous when it comes to the power of their support. Rewind 12 years to O'Connell Street in Limerick and the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

It's the 61st minute of the 2006 Heineken Cup Final and Munster are leading Biarritz 20-16.

There's a stoppage in play before we were given one of those unique moments in Limerick and Munster sport.

"We'd gone into a bit of a lull, and the supporters had gone a bit quiet too. We needed something to happen - someone make a massive break or a big tackle. Anything to lift us again," Paul O'Connell said in 'Munster: Our Road to Glory'. "It turned out that we got it from the supporters watching the big screen in Limerick."

When an O'Connell Street packed with thousands of supporters flashed up on the big screen in the Millennium Stadium it took a few seconds to understand what was going on because we'd never seen anything like it before. Seeing the fans in Limerick's main street cheering and roaring at seeing themselves on the big screen whipped up a feral energy in the Munster fans in the stadium as they stood up and cheered back at their own people in Limerick.

It was an unprecedented orgy of mutual appreciation. The players felt and saw it too on the pitch.

"Some of the lads were slow to comment on it after the game because they didn't want to admit they weren't concentrating on the match," Marcus Horan recalled in 'Our Road to Glory'. "But we've spoken about it since and it was something we will remember forever".

Who knows if Munster's first Heineken Cup had a knock-on effect in inspiring the Limerick hurlers but the following year they qualified for their first All-Ireland hurling final in 11 years.

It came in-between Munster's two Heineken Cup final wins. The storylines building up to that '06 Heineken Cup Final were drenched in a need for Munster to reach the promised land and bring an end to what felt like incomparable years of hurt from their two previous final defeats. But the European Cup as a competition was only a decade old when Munster finally won it.

Some people baulk at comparing sports but it helps to give context to the position Limerick hurling is in - they haven't won the Liam MacCarthy Cup since 1973. Forty-five years must feel like forever for Limerick hurling.

The county hurlers tried to tap into what Munster rugby were doing.

Renowned Limerick rugby commentator Len Dinneen remembers meeting former Limerick manager Eamonn Cregan outside the old Thomond Park during Declan Kidney's first stint in charge of the province.

"He wanted to have a word with Declan about the training methods. He came in and I introduced him to Declan and they had a great old chat," Dinneen recalls.

"Eamonn was just interested in the methods and Declan treated him very well".

Limerick is the only county in the GAA which has a concept on its jersey as opposed to a sponsor's name.

Benefactor and businessman JP McManus adopted the logo 'Sporting Limerick' for the jerseys when he took over as sponsor of the hurling and football inter-county teams.

McManus' ties with his Limerick childhood GAA club, South Liberties, are seen every time jockeys from his Martinstown Stud wear the green and yellow silks.

'Sporting Limerick' is a brand originally formed in the 1990s by the late Tim O'Brien from Limerick. His vision was to unite sport in Limerick under the one banner. But what makes sport in Limerick unique?

"It's because in every sport in Limerick class doesn't exist. It's the same comment that's made about Limerick rugby in particular - which is that the docker and the doctor play together," brand manager George Lee said this week.

"Everybody in Limerick has an opinion whether it's a soccer opinion, a rugby opinion, a hockey opinion or a GAA opinion. If you want to start a conversation in Limerick, you need to know about sport".

Limerick knows sport and sport knows Limerick. In 2011, it became the first Irish city to be named a European City of Sport. But it's not just about GAA and the home of Munster Rugby in Limerick - you can take your pick from any sport. They've given us boxers like Andy Lee and rowers like Sam Lynch. Ireland's first Olympic-sized swimming pool was opened at the University of Limerick in 2002.

Soccer is huge in the city - just ask Sam Allardyce. Six years after Limerick won their last All-Ireland hurling title John Treacy won the World Cross-Country Championships at the old Green Park Racecourse.

And Limerick sport has given us characters. Big Joe McKenna. The Hartigan Brothers. Mick Mackey. Richie Bennis. Ciarán Carey. The Claw. Paulie.

Two important players in Ireland's Grand Slam success this year were Limerick-born Conor Murray and Keith Earls. Decades later and Limerick hurling continues to tap into the success of its rugby players with Earls giving a talk to the Limerick team during this hurling championship.

And so it's back to Croke Park tomorrow for Limerick. When they lost to Galway in the 1980 final, the Galway captain Joe Connolly delivered one of the best lines from the Hogan when he said: "People of Galway, we love you".

That year Galway bridged a 57-year gap. Forty-five years isn't that far behind.

Maybe its because another papal visit is coming up but imagine what it would be like if similar words were said to Limerick people from the Hogan Stand tomorrow.

I hope the Limerick gentleman I stood beside in the Hill for the semi-final has a ticket for Croke Park tomorrow.

I hope he gets a chance to throw his arms up and celebrate like nobody's watching.

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