Donal Lenihan 

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Where have all the Limerick forwards gone?

In the same way that Ireland has always relied on a strong core of Munster players — forwards, in particular — Munster has always been at its belligerent best with a core of influential Limerick forwards on board, writes Donal Lenihan 

Where have all the Limerick forwards gone?

Former Munster hooker Packie Derham — who scored the decisive try in the historic win over Australia at Musgrave Park in 1981 — was the first to pose the question; is there any Limerick player in Munster’s matchday squad today?

It was raised as a decent crowd gathered in front of the television in the Constitution clubhouse bar, watching on anxiously as Munster closed out the remaining minutes of their third-round Guinness PRO14 clash against the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium back in September.

His suspicions proved correct. Not one son of Limerick was amongst the 23 players who donned the red jersey that day, an oddity repeated when Munster defeated the Dragons in Cork a few weeks later.

While I am new to this Twitter craic, I knew tweeting that pertinent point would attract some adverse comment, which it did, but that would only serve to miss the point completely.

With Munster’s stunning new, state-of-the-art, training base at the University of Limerick now well established, the excellent facilities have found favour with all in the squad. It was advanced as one of the main reasons for the turnaround in the province’s fortunes last season, when Munster advanced to the semi-final of the Champions Cup and the Guinness PRO12 final.

Coupled with the fact that the vast majority of Munster’s games are now staged in Thomond Park, it is no surprise that many commentators from abroad view Limerick and Munster rugby as one and the same thing.

Pic: Sportsfile
Pic: Sportsfile

No great surprise there as Limerick has always been viewed as the traditional home of rugby in the province. With a proud tradition and a rich history of great clubs, every successful Munster team has been populated with a rich vein of quality players from that proud city and surrounds.

Therein lies my concern and reasoning behind highlighting the fact that, for whatever reason, quality Limerick players — specifically forwards — are becoming increasingly scarce. On numerous occasions last season, against the best opposition the European game could muster, loosehead prop Dave Kilcoyne was the only Limerick forward on show, a trend that has continued into this campaign.

Each of Munster’s iconic moments were fashioned with a forward unit driven by Limerick’s finest up front.

The pack which laid the foundation for the 12-0 win over New Zealand in 1978 had Gerry McLaughlin, Pat Whelan, Brendan Foley and Colm Tucker on board with that Shannon trio of McLaughlin, Foley and Tucker still in situ when the Wallabies were beaten in Musgrave Park three years later.

Fast forward to 1992 when the Wallabies, as reigning world champions, were defeated again at the same venue with Peter and Ger Clohessy, Richard Costelloe and Ger Earls leading the charge up front.

Having played with or against all of that grizzled contingent, I can vouch from first hand experience just how influential a role they played in the successes enjoyed by their clubs and the province during that period.

The professional era has proved no different and Munster’s historic Heineken Cup winning sides of 2006 and 2008 had a front five driven by John Hayes, Jerry Flannery and Paul O’Connell.

Pic: Sportsfile
Pic: Sportsfile

And while Marcus Horan and Anthony Foley often highlighted their strong Clare roots, there is no disputing the fact that both learned their trade from a young age in the heart of Limerick with St. Munchins and Shannon.

David Wallace was another to do likewise at Crescent Comprehensive and Garryowen.

My only hesitancy in listing him as a proud son of Limerick stems from the fact that his mother corrected this newspaper some years ago for describing him as such, given that he was born in the Rebel County.

Who am I to argue with a great woman who raised not one or two but three British and Irish Lions?

Much successful work has been done over the last decade by Munster Rugby to spread the gospel right across the province.

That has begun to bear fruit in recent times with Munster competing far more successfully at underage level, across the school and youth sectors, with young players being sourced from all six counties. That is great to see.

Tipperary has proved a hotbed for forwards over the last 15 years with Donnacha Ryan, Denis Leamy, the Fogarty brothers John and Denis, Tommy O’Donnell, Dave Foley and, most recently, Sean O’Connor all playing a major role in Munster’s fortunes.

Ironically, given its proud history of producing teak tough forwards, the strongest Limerick influence within the current squad is to be found behind the scrum.

Pic: Sportsfile
Pic: Sportsfile

Conor Murray, once again, displayed his prowess as one of the most talented players on the world stage with an outstanding Lions tour of New Zealand, starting all three tests.

Having shaken off some of the injury travails that have derailed his career at untimely intervals, Keith Earls had an outstanding season in 2016/17, finishing with some sublime performances on Ireland’s tour of America and Japan.

He had continued in that vein up to his recent hamstring injury though he had to pull out late from yesterday’s game.

The big question for me though is what has happened to the production line of top-notch Limerick forwards?

The Munster player roster for the 2017/18 season lists 42 contracted players including 22 forwards. It must be a concern that only two of those forwards, Kilcoyne and Mike Sherry, are from Limerick. What’s going on here?

Even more worrying is the fact that the trend extends to the Munster Academy which currently caters for 20 players, spread across a three-year programme.

Of the nine contracted forwards on the books only one — Ireland U20 prop Joey Conway — is from Limerick.

In the same way that Ireland has always relied on a strong core of Munster players — forwards, in particular — Munster has always been at its belligerent best with a core of influential Limerick forwards on board. It is somewhat ironic therefore that the Limerick production line is now spurting out an increasing array of talented backs.

Pic: Sportsfile
Pic: Sportsfile

In addition to Murray and Earls, Dan Goggin and Ronan O Mahony made valuable contributions to Munster’s progress before injury intervened, and former Ireland U20 star Stephen Fitzgerald is now back in contention after a series of injuries stifled his progress last year.

There is even a stronger thread of talented young Limerick backs coming through the academy, contributing five of the 11 contracted in that area. Two of those, centre/wing Calvin Nash, who captained the Ireland U20 side last season, and back three player Daniel Hurley showing real promise and have impressed for Young Munster all season, with Hurley offering searing pace.

The great thing about Munster rugby at present is that it is no longer the exclusive domain of Limerick and Cork.

All six counties are now contributing to the growth of the game at schools and youth level and that is reflected in many of the underage development squads preparing the next generation of Munster heroes.

That can only be good for the future of the game here.

What is also clear is that Munster has always been able to call on a clatter of outstanding Limerick forwards over its celebrated history and that needs to continue.

Yet of the 13 forwards in the matchday squad that fashioned the memorable win over Leicester Tigers at Welford Road ten days ago, eight were from Cork,three from South Africa, and one each from Waterford and Limerick.

Hence the legitimate concern and question as to why Limerick forwards are becoming such an endangered species?

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