Brought to you by Energia, proud sponsors of the Energia All Ireland League.
It has been long known that Limerick is synonymous with rugby.
For a city of its size, there is an impressive number of clubs operating in Limerick.
The establishment of the sport in Ireland’s third city is down to a myriad of factors, a detailed explanation of which is beyond the scope of this article, but its popularity and growth can generally be put down to its appeal among the masses in the city. Whereas in Dublin and Cork, the sport was predominantly played by the middle to upper classes, in Limerick, there weren’t enough players in those social categories to sustain the game, as such, it spread to all walks of life.
In addition to this, back in the late 19th century when the sport was beginning to establish itself in Ireland, Limerick in the post-famine era was a tough place to be. The inner-city population lived in difficult conditions associated with the many lanes and tenement housing in Limerick.
Rugby was an outlet.
Less than a decade after the sport was first introduced in Limerick, two clubs; Shannon and Garryowen were founded (1884). Young Munster quickly followed in 1895. These three teams would dominate the Limerick rugby landscape for the next century.
When the Energia AIL was formed in 1990, Limerick clubs rose to the top in the opening 10 years of the new competition.
Limerick clubs won seven out of the first 10 AIL titles with Shannon being crowned champions four times during their famous and historic four-in-a-row triumph, Garryowen twice and Young Munster once.
The 1990s are often heralded as the good times of club rugby in Ireland, Munster and Limerick.
Whether it was the old Thomond Park, Greenfields in Rosbrien or Dooradoyle, thousands of supporters packed these grounds in the 1990s, such was the appetite and excitement which surrounded the game and the new league which was formed.
“My standout memories are just a packed Greenfields, Dooradoyle or Thomond Park,” Young Munster Director of Rugby Gearoid Prendergast tells Pundit Arena.
“Watching the big Shannon-Garryowen games, the Young Munster games. The two that probably stand out, I remember a big game with Garryowen against Young Munster. I remember Ger Earls [Keith Earls’ father] playing, he was outstanding the same day, just putting pressure on Dan Larkin who I think was playing out-half for Garryowen, he just didn’t give him a minute all day long and the crowd were behind him.
“There were a few strong people in the Young Munster pack. Garryowen had a different style of rugby then, they were probably a bit more backs-orientated. That game stood out to me because I got a good appreciation of how physically dominant Young Munster could be but equally, Shannon and Garryowen in Thomond Park, Garryowen had a player called Brent Anderson [former All Black] in the second-row, a big powerful man.
“They had some electric backs with the likes of Phillip Danaher, Richie Wallace and these guys. I don’t remember the years but those two games stand out. I was young and I remember appreciating both games.”
For Garryowen head coach Conan Doyle, the 34-year-old lives and breathes the club based out of Dooradoyle. He’s captained the club as a player and has been head coach for the last six seasons despite his young age.
Interestingly, he wasn’t born into a Garryowen family, his brothers played for the nearby clubs, Young Munster and Old Crescent. On that side of the city, Garryowen, Young Munster and Old Crescent all operate within a short distance of one another.
“The thing about Limerick rugby, there’s so many clubs. I would have had two brothers who would have played with Old Crescent and Young Munster. They were involved there, they were a bit older than me.
“When I started playing, I was big into soccer and when I started, I was playing with Garryowen, I suppose we lived in the area so it was the easiest one for me to walk to! They would have been playing with Young Munster and Old Crescent at that time.”
This season, there are two Limerick clubs operating in Division 1A of the AIL, Garryowen and Young Munster. Last season there were three but Shannon suffered relegation to Division 1B.
Although the onset and rapid growth of the professional game in Ireland has led to a fall in attendances and interest compared to the first decade of the AIL, derby games remain special, especially for those directly involved in the clubs, as Doyle explains:
“There always is [excitement]. I think the two games against Young Munster this season and in any season, where we’re playing either them or last year, Shannon, they’re games you absolutely want to win. You’d certainly don’t want to be losing those games. There are years when you finish middle of the table but if you’ve gone well in those games, you’d feel good with yourself. There’s loads of slagging, loads of banter in the week of the game and after the game and everything like that. It’s certainly a game you’d want to come out on the right side of.”
“People like that [volunteers and supporters] who have put in so much time and effort into the clubs. They do it because they love the place. They love the involvement in the club. They’re so involved in every aspect of club life so when it comes down to those big games then, it means a huge amount. Especially because those people know each other, the players would know each other. Limerick rugby is a tight-knit community, you’d know most people involved in almost every club. Everybody knows each other and everybody wants the bragging rights if they can.”
Prendergast echoes Doyle’s sentiment as he describes how for people who have been involved in those clubs for decades, the rivalries are “ingrained in them” – that will never change.
“Especially for the people who have been involved in the club that have been around the club for 20, 30, 40 years. For them, it’s that rivalry. That rivalry is ingrained in them. That won’t leave.
“Sometimes that transcends into teams…their own children, small clubs, family and friends playing. For us older lads as well, we try to educate the younger lads that this is what it was like 20 years ago. When I was growing up, the rivalry was intense. You try to tap into that. There are elements of it within the squad but within the general rugby public, it’s maybe not the same as it used to be.”
With this season’s AIL entering the home stretch, both Garryowen and Young Munster are in strong positions.
Garryowen currently lie in second place while Young Munster are in fifth, just one point behind Lansdowne in that final playoff spot.
This Friday, the two clubs will meet in Dooradoyle and Prendergast is determined to get a win over their city rivals after November’s disappointment where they fell to a defeat at home.
“They’re huge games, Friday night in Dooradoyle, we’ve experienced those games, those moments, you always get a good crowd at it. There will be a bit of sting in the tails because of the game back in November where we were in control up until the last half-hour and that’s where they pulled away.”
Garryowen and Young Munster face off in Dooradoyle on Friday night at 8 pm.
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