Tony Ward: Independent Park - a ground for the ages
On Friday the Irish Wolfhounds welcome the English Saxons to Cork. They do so at the re-christened Irish Independent Park, an atmospheric ground unrecognisable from what it once was.
It now meets the needs of 21st century Munster rugby.
In recent times, the old Musgrave Park operated in the shadow of Thomond Park, yet for many years there was little to choose between the two; you could not say definitively which was the top rugby venue in the province.
In so many ways, October 31, 1978 changed that.
Of course, the modern Thomond Park bears little resemblance to the battered and bedraggled, open-sided, single-stand ground it once was. Despite having lived in Limerick and loving everything about life and rugby there, I always had a special affection for and affinity with Musgrave Park.
Perhaps that was due to my sudden introduction to rugby in the province.
I had been the best part of a year in Limerick in 1975 attending the then National College of Physical Education - now University of Limerick - but concentrating on my football career with Shamrock Rovers. It was an arrangement not overly conducive to academic excellence. . .
Garryowen (one of the strongest sides in the country at the time) lost their out-half to injury, and given my relationship with Shay Deering, the Dooradoyle club approached me to fill the void.
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I remember playing for Rovers against Home Farm at Tolka Park on a Friday night in March (we won 2-1) before lining out for Garryowen against Wanderers the following day at Lansdowne Road (we won that too, although I can't recall the score).
The post-match revelries -specifically scrum-half Liam Hall singing and dancing across the tables to 'Any Dream Will Do' - instantly won me over. I was smitten.
Seven days later, in only my second game of senior rugby, I was wearing Johnny Moroney's ten for the Light Blues against Sunday's Well at Musgrave Park.
It might as well have been Pluto Park or somewhere in a distant galaxy. I hadn't a clue at that time whether it was Cork or Limerick the opposition came from, or where the venue was.
I learnt very quickly, as 'the Soccer Player' (as then Cork Constitution coach Noel 'Noisy' Murphy dubbed me) was brought to earth with a bang amid the mayhem and madness that was Munster cup rugby.
We won, and the following week beat Old Crescent in Thomond in the semi-final, thereby finding myself a fortnight on from my introduction to Munster Senior Cup rugby playing against Cork Con back at Musgrave Park in the final. I won't go into the details but we won 6-4.
Within months I was back at the same venue making my debut for Munster against the 1975-'76 touring Wallabies, and although we lost 15-13 (yours truly missing a late conversion) a decade of provincial representative rugby was under way. The teams that day read:
Munster: L Moloney (Garryowen); B Smith (Cork Con), S Dennison (Garryowen), P Lavery (London Irish), P Parfrey (UCC); T Ward (Garryowen), D Canniffe (Cork Constitution); G McLoughlin (Shannon), P Whelan (Garryowen), P O'Callaghan (Dolphin); E Molloy (Garryowen), M Keane (Lansdowne); S Deering (Garryowen, capt), N Elliott (Dolphin), B Foley (Shannon).
Australia: P McLean; L Monaghan, J Berne, G Shaw, J Ryan; J Weatherstone, R Hauser; R Graham, C Carberry, J Meadows; G Fay, R Smith; A Shaw, G Cornelson, M Loane.
Eight of that Munster team went on to face New Zealand in that pretty well-recorded game two years on, while three - Ginger McLoughlin, Brendan Foley (Axel's dad) and me - were back on Leeside in 1981 when this time we did manage to beat the Aussies 15-6.
That Munster team lined out:
Munster: J Barry (UCC); E Griffin (Garryowen), M Kiernan (Dolphin), P Cross (Young Munster), J Crotty (UCC); T Ward (Garryowen), A O'Regan (UCC); T Hennessy (London Irish), P Derham (UCC), G McLoughlin (Shannon); D Lenihan (UCC), B Foley (Shannon); C Tucker (Shannon), C Cantillon (Cork Con), A O'Leary (Wanderers, capt).
Australia: G Ella; P Grigg, M O'Connor, M Cox, B Moon; M Ella, A Parker; D Curran, C Carberry, J Meadows; P McLean, M Mathers; S Poidevin, P Lucas, D Hall.
As well as winning Senior Cup and Senior League titles, there were many great interpro victories there too. Indeed take away that loss to Australia in '76 and I can recall precious few defeats at this ground I love so well.
It happened too that the Dolphin end had the best showers in the province at that time. A top-quality playing surface made it complete.
Irish Independent Park, then, is a new ground for the ages.
Raise pay ceiling to bridge gap to big spenders
It was a good weekend for Irish rugby, yet somewhat ironically the only team not to win recorded the best possible outcome, with results elsewhere falling their way.
The semi-final draw has been unkind, given that it looks like a trip to Toulon awaits Leinster should they see off Bath in Dublin, but I really believe that Matt O'Connor's men, even now, have what it takes to go the whole way.
I appreciate that the gap between the haves and have-nots of Champions Cup has widened, but I do not accept all the doom and gloom - the suggestion that it is now a lost cause for Irish rugby. The game here will adapt, for the simple reason it has to. The ceiling on pay will alter, as will the attitude towards private investment.
Once the game went open in 1995, the ground rules changed forever. Rugby is unrecognisable from what it once was. I'm not so sure it's a better game for it, but never has interest been greater.
The French and English need us every bit as much as we need them and don't kid yourself otherwise. It's called evolution.