Sunday 25 February 2018

Red Army stay grounded thanks to new home comforts

For most of the professional era, Munster punched above their weight despite having to split training between Cork and Limerick.  This season the province are reaping benefits from their new UL base -  but an empty chair in an empty office strikes a daily melancholic chord

Even though living in Cork, Peter O’Mahony says Munster’s new training centre at the University of Limerick has made life easier. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Even though living in Cork, Peter O’Mahony says Munster’s new training centre at the University of Limerick has made life easier. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Of all the many Munster miracles down the years, perhaps the most spectacular of them all was their peculiar gift of bi-location.

For all but this latest year of their professional existence, Munster persisted with the practice of splitting their training centres between Cork and Limerick before belatedly opting for a centralised HQ for this season.

Some would argue that throughout Munster's recent history, the split personality served them well, believing that the high water-mark success of two Heineken Cup wins recorded its virtues.

Others take a different view, insisting that it was counter-intuitive to expect such a sundered practice to enable the province to maintain pace with those in Europe who, quite apart from having better resources and finances in the first place, were able to house them beneath one roof.

"The one centre is huge," reckons Donncha O'Callaghan, one of those double European winners, now with Worcester. "I was against it, a proud Corkman. I fought it like a dog.

"But you need to spend time with each other. We were playing on flat tyres, we trained twice a week. Madness. What could we have done? We won two European Cups doing it but what more could we have achieved?

Bitterness

"Everyone goes on about that bitterness and all that, but you wonder sometimes if it held us back."

The blood and bandages approach that fired Munster in days of yore is no longer necessary or appropriate in an era where the finest of margins decide the difference between winning and losing. At this remove, one might suggest that Munster achieved success despite their self-imposed obstacles, not because of them.

"Having the forwards and backs together working in the one area is fantastic," agrees David Wallace, another European Cup winner from 2006 and 2008.

"You're not scraping together for a scrummaging session or a lineout session. Players are eating and living together as a team.

"It had been talked about for so long but I don't necessarily know if it was madness that we got away with it. We made the best of it, there were other sides I looked at it as positives.

"You weren't living in each other's pockets, you'd get the stories from the young lads out in the weekend in Cork. You used to look forward to seeing guys on a Tuesday."

Often, the problem was that it felt like you would never get there. Anybody who has endured the serpentine route between Cork and Limerick, a twisting and turning circuit that resembles the Monaco Grand Prix route, albeit without either the glamour or the potential for speed, would wonder how they managed to get anything done at all.

The Cork-based professionals often had to rise at 6.0 to negotiate the trip to training and, with some of them studying, they sometimes would not return to their beds until after 10.0 in the evening.

There were attempts at compromise; after defeat to Wasps in 2004, then captain Jim Williams, the Australian flanker whose professionalism so inspired his new team-mates, publicly slammed the policy.

For a time, the squad centred in Charleville for some group sessions, while Cork and Limerick continued to train separately for a time; it was a compromise that was half-way between Cork and Limerick but also half-way towards what was required.

There was stubborn resistance; Ronan O'Gara recalls that, although there was an acknowledgement that the players were wasting hours on the road, he and the Cork-based players didn't want to move to Limerick.

Sporting politics played its part too. Change was, a bit like the N20 itself, slow and incremental.

Plans for a motorway, a deus ex machina that may have lightened the burden, were perennially shelved until, eventually, Munster bit the bullet.

Players based in Cork can still choose to live there; what happens now is that they spend a couple of nights in Limerick during the early part of the week. Captain Peter O'Mahony has a young family and retains his family home in Cork.

"My parents are in Cork, Jess' parents are in Cork, we have a young daughter so she has a lot more support there when we're away in the week," he explains.

"It has made life a lot easier for everyone, not just the people who moved up from Cork.

"I mean, if you ask any of the lads in the squad what's the best thing, it's just having your own locker, your own dressing-room where you can leave stuff and base yourself out of, not having to haul gear around all the time.

"It's just how efficient we are now time-wise. We're not doing more training. But we can be so much more efficient in terms of having meetings and little groups and training on the pitch."

Conor Murray has seen the clear benefits compared to what things used to be like.

"It's been a huge benefit; even from the first few months here, it was already evident and the benefit was very clear to me," he says.

"Take it for the previous four or five years - if I was starting with Ronan O'Gara on the weekend I would only see him on a Tuesday or a Thursday.

"You would get your work done and you would get as much as you can done, try and get the most you can out of your training sessions.

Stress

"But now if there is someone you want to chat to, a coach, a player, any other member of staff, you just grab them, go for a coffee and chat to them. You are in the one centre, there is no stress about meeting up.

"Everything is just a little bit easier, which definitely benefits us - whatever percentage it is, I'm not sure, but it definitely is an edge."

The High Performance Centre is more than merely a floor space of 3,270 square metres, fully equipped with €250,000 out of an overall University of Limerick €15m upgrade. It is home.

"We are just closer," adds Murray. "We are very close as a team now and what was missing before was for me, mainly, just the little chats you can have with a fella."

They needed that comfort this year more than most. Ironically Anthony Foley would once have been one of the old guard resisting the change. Ultimately, he was one of those most determined to push it through.

His office, still largely untouched, remains empty now but all pass it daily, a reminder that this home is where their hearts are.

Irish Independent

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