Saturday 24 August 2019

Ewan MacKenna: 'Munster used to embody everything great about Irish sport - but those days are long gone'

A general view of Thomond Park
A general view of Thomond Park
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

It's a picture that says so much.

Inpho photographer Donall Farmer wasn't pitch-side at the Millennium Stadium on the afternoon of 20 May, 2006. Instead, drawing a short straw, he was sent to Limerick's O'Connell Street and with a big screen set up for that Heineken Cup final, he simply turned and faced down the crowd. The passion and pride of a congregation tells what you need to know about the preachers and their message.

It was a remarkable sight he captured. As far as his lens could take in was a sea of blood red, more than perhaps that group of Munster players had spilled over the many brutal years. These were the fans that couldn't get near a match ticket too, but they were there that Saturday in case it was the moment a famine suddenly turned into a feast.

It gloriously did.

Yet even before that triumph, and despite all the heartbreak, the one word you'd associate with that version of the province was heart, as they'd never stay down. And as rugby tip-toed into a pro era filled with foreign imports, what they still had was a sliver of throwback. Sean Payne and Trevor Halstead may have been in the line-up but the rest? They were very local lads, stepping out under the bright lights of the global.

Ultimately the most cynical couldn't take away from the enormity of it as, led by Anthony Foley, they together wrote the closing chapter of an amazing story.

Stand up and fight may seem trite now. Back then though, it truly meant something.


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There's never any shame in losing. Simply ask that version of the province.

Indeed since their last final visit, various Munster sides have arguably had more reason to come up short due to market share and big-money owners becoming club rugby's new norm. Besides, in Europe, from newest to oldest, their last 11 seasons finished: Semi-final, semi-final, semi-final, group, group, semi-final, semi-final, quarter-final, group, semi-final, semi-final. That's serious going as what more can you do when you've reached your glass ceiling?

There's no shame in losing, but it depends on how you lose.

This is where it gets a bit messy for Munster, and this week has added to it.

At best, Billy Vunipola is not a particularly intelligent person. At worst, he's not a particularly nice human being. Very few would or could contest on those fronts. And, at first glance, this makes Munster fans' apparent efforts in Coventry to show their disapproval of his views an impressive shining of the torch. That's the problem with first glances though. Fleeting and with little depth, they often don't tell us everything.

Even the booing that greeted Vunipola throughout the game was at face value to be admired, until a brief flutter back into the archives. Take this headline from the Limerick Leader on 20 May, 2017.

'Gardaí intervene as kicker is jeered at Thomond Park'

Making noise at a rugby match should be every entrant's right, but in Munster it's become about only when it suits them.

Then take the lack of reaction to the fan who confronted Vunipola on the field. Ronan O'Gara solely joked that he looked like a Leinster supporter. Alan Quinlan has launched a social media tirade against Vunipola, but said little about or against the pitch invader. Donal Lenihan brought up that odious term 'rugby values', but solely around the England international. And the organisation's official line was wishy-washy, distancing themselves from the fan wearing a Munster jersey as they said he was neither a season ticket holder or a member of the official supporters club, and six days later they haven't even banned him for life when that would be automatic in any other sport.

We shouldn't be surprised though, as brick by brick over recent years they've torn down what previously made them so different. And while there's nothing wrong with being just one more franchise dotting the rugby landscape, pretending not to be grates.


So what does Munster represent today?

That's a question that started to nag around the time when Ian Keatley was out-half.

He'd later recall his 2015-16 season and his experiences of the famous Munster support. How his mother broke down over the phone; how he was subjected to the abuse during games; how it shattered his confidence on the pitch as well as off of it.

"I wasn't cracking jokes anymore," he noted. "I wasn't listening to music, I love listening to music. In the car, on the way in to training I'd have my radio off, I was constantly thinking. Weird things go through your head; I wondered, 'Why am I putting myself through this?'."

Keatley also remembered how Anthony Foley helped him along, which was some going given what the coach himself had to endure. Since his tragic and sudden death, many fans have changed their tune about the job he did at the helm, but let's not rewrite history because of tragedy.

How many times have you heard Munster fans talk how it was under his watch they had to bring in their R.E.S.P.E.CT ideal to try and stop the venom from the stand? How many times have you heard about how a mere 7,200 showed up for a derby with Ulster and 160 tickets were shifted for an away-day with Stade Francais? How many times have you heard about how his wife mentioned at the funeral, the pain he endured when leading them?

They might talk of a Red Army but at the weekend in a half-empty Ricoh Arena in Coventry, they blamed the opposition for that. However, more from Leitrim made their way to the Division Four football league final in GAA than from Munster to a European Cup semi-final.

If Keatley's treatment was a seminal moment though, then the treatment of Gerbrandt Grobler made sure it has continued on. In February 2015, he admitted to anabolic steroid use and was banned for two years. By August 2017, and with studies showing the effects of such drugs can last for decades, Munster offered up redemption by shovelling money, not just the way of any cheat, but a person who was happy to cheat in one of the sports where doping can do the most damage due to the brute physicality of the game.

Then, as now, out came the defenders for the indefensible. Be it fans in cheering, former players in their words, teammates in their support, or the club in their actions. It was reprehensible from all. None of them could face the truth.

It has made it almost impossible to like what used to be so likeable.

Back in 2006, many took in what was special but that feeling can only happen once and you cannot relive the first occasion. Besides, times have changed, only they go on as if it's the very same. As an example, the Saracens side that beat them are bemoaned for buying success, but what exactly have Munster tried to do with less money? The same.

Only 53% of their team that started at the weekend were even from Munster, with the South African and the Leinster systems responsible for as many players each as Limerick's fabled fields. Between used bench and first XV, six that played a part were from South Africa or New Zealand, versus three from Limerick. In fact had Joey Carbery played, Blackrock College would have been as prominent as their spiritual home.

That's quite an indictment for a place that calls Leinster a rival when it ought to be thankful for the hand-outs and hand-me-downs; and that's quite an indictment for a place that drags along worn-out bygones and sees itself as unique due to it being about the local.

So what is it they represent today? Honesty? Integrity? Loyalty? Community?

In long lost victories, for sure. But no more.

Stand up and fight? For what though, when you now stand for so little?

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