THERE were times, sitting in the South Stand of Páirc Ui Chaoimh on the night Munster played the South African XV, when I had to pinch myself.
Was this really happening? The bustling new stadium, jammed packed with Munster rugby fans, brought to its feet in a state of frenzy within three minutes of the kick off when Cork’s own Shane Daly touched down in the corner at the Blackrock end.
I doubt if the Springboks have ever heard of Christy Ring or Jimmy Barry Murphy but South Africa’s passionate rugby followers won't need a map to become fully aware of a famous piece of real estate on the banks of the Lee in Cork.
When it comes to sport, Cork people, despite the absence of an All-Ireland senior hurling or football title for far too long, are massively proud of its rich sporting tradition and success across a wide range of sports, male and female.
I’ve been around long enough that I can boast of attending Páirc ui Chaoimh in its three different guises. As a young kid I was a regular attendee with my dad at the original, the Cork Athletic Grounds, and even played there on a few occasions.
I was there when the gates were literally blown off the hinges and the crowd spilled out onto the sidelines after the dated concrete edifice was rebuilt for the first time, such was the crowd for the Munster football final between Cork and Kerry at the new arena in 1976.
The latest sporting extravaganza down “The Park” showcased the magnificent stadium to a huge worldwide audience. The fact that it’s surrounded by newly developed parks that complement the picturesque Marina - which became an important and valued outlet for citizens during the pandemic - has added significantly to the wider community and offers a sense of belonging.
Attending the testimonial for the late Liam Miller in 2018, I wondered if we would ever see rugby hosted there, especially after Ireland’s failed bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup robbed us of the chance to play a quarter final at the venue.
The fact the Cork GAA were open to such a suggestion as a means to service the debt outstanding on the development, and that preliminary talks had taken place under the stewardship of late Munster CEO Garrett Fitzgerald meant I never lost faith that it would happen someday.
How invigorating it was when that prospect finally became reality. It was such a special and emotional moment when Waterford’s Jack O'Donoghue led his men onto the magnificent playing surface, the red of Cork substituted by the red of Munster.
The evening proved an unqualified success on a number of levels with everyone, apart from the beleaguered Springbok squad, gaining appreciably from the experience. The big question now is what happens next? While there’s no question that Thomond Park, especially on big European nights, is the undisputed home of Munster rugby, there’s a myriad of reasons why the province has to re-establish a meaningful presence in Cork.
Depending on the structure of the Heineken Champions Cup, Munster hosts up to 14 home games, excluding knockout rugby, every season. On average, Musgrave Park gets to host three of those but, unfortunately, they tend to be the runt of the fixtures litter.
It’s a no brainer that knockout games in the Heineken Champions Cup or the URC that are not allowed be staged in Thomond Park should be played at Páirc ui Chaoimh, if available, as opposed to the Aviva Stadium. If a situation arises that the capacity of Thomond Park is insufficient to cater for a big knockout game in Europe, then Cork GAA headquarters offers a highly attractive alternative.
What the game against South Africa proved conclusively is that, if you create a proper event, the people will come. 41,400 available tickets all sold in three days is proof positive of that - and the capacity may well rise to 45,000 next time out.
At the very least, south Munster deserve one significant annual fixture. From next season onwards, I would strongly advocate that the St. Stephen’s Day URC derby between Munster and Leinster to laminated in the calendar for Páirc ui Chaoimh. I’m convinced that, with proper marketing and a 5.30 pm kick-off, the venue would sell out well in advance. It has to happen. It makes so much sense on a number of fronts, not least, from a financial perspective.
FOR YEARS Leinster have been generating huge money by moving the annual Pro 12/14/URC fixture against Munster from the RDS to the Aviva Stadium. The additional funds pouring into the coffers from that one fixture alone enables Leinster to operate profitably every year. The figures speak for themselves. The most recent contest, a 27-13 win for the hosts in front of 45,000 last month, saw Leinster bank a net €1.2m having paid the IRFU just over €300,000 for the use of the facility.
Had the game been staged up the road at the 18,500 capacity RDS, the net return to Leinster would have been in the region of €550,000. Moving the fixture contributes, on average, an additional €600,000 to Leinster’s bottom line annually.
For Leinster’s professional board, hosting Munster at the Aviva Stadium is a no brainer and is factored into their budget annually. Their biggest challenge is in finding a way to capture the wider audience of over 25,000 who regularly attend that game. They can’t all be Munster people living in Dublin.
Staging the South African game was seen by progressive Cork GAA CEO Kevin O'Donovan and his Munster counterpart Ian Flanagan as dipping a toe in the water given the element of risk attached.
Hosting an overseas team came at a price for Munster, in the case of the Springbok A squad, about €300,000, an outlay that wouldn’t apply against Leinster. With a base figure agreed, including add-ons depending on the volume of tickets sold, Cork GAA had the opportunity to pocket up to €200,000 from the exercise.
With Thomond Park regularly attracting a capacity 26,000 audience for the festive derby, the scope to pocket as much as Leinster manage is reduced. That said, an additional attendance of 15,000, based on the South African game, and potentially 18,000 with eased health and safety restrictions, could generate an extra €300,000 for Munster after paying for the use of the facility.
Factor in too the expanded commercial potential of playing in Cork. Munster’s commercial department received 76 enquiries, significantly higher than games in Thomond Park attract, for the Páirc Ui Chaoimh event and did a brilliant job in maximising their return from that activity.
It’s no secret that Munster Rugby has become so Limerick-centric that the connection that existed between the team and its support base from the south of the province - including commercial - has been diluted in recent times. A significant amount of those have responded with their feet and no longer travel to Limerick for URC games.
Much of Munster’s current support base started going to games as kids with their parents when the team took Europe by storm in the noughties. That’s not happening with anything like the same frequency today. That’s why the volume of young kids who witnesses Munster in the flesh, many perhaps for the first time against the tourists, will remember that night forever and will look to experience it again.
After last Saturday’s win over Connacht, Graham Rowntree fully endorsed the Páirc Ui Chaoimh experiment. “Some of the guys said it was the best game they ever played in terms of atmosphere. We needed it. It was important for the club on so many fronts. It was just such an incredible night; the crowd were excellent, and it is a great stadium."
When it was first mooted that the St. Stephen’s Day derby might be shifted to Páirc ui Chaoimh, there was a frenzy of excitement about the prospect. With thousands returning home for the festive season, coupled with many more craving a festive sporting outlet, Munster have the opportunity to create a major event every year.
Even more important than the potential to increase revenue is the opportunity to showcase Munster rugby to a wider audience. The flags of all six counties were proudly displayed in Páirc ui Chaoimh for the South Africa game. Munster has to recognise the need to grow audience and attract more neutrals to its games.
For whatever reason, when the prospect of playing a touring side at Páirc Ui Chaoimh was first mooted at a meeting of the Munster hierarchy, there was a strong reluctance from some of the Limerick contingent to even contemplate the prospect. What are they afraid of?
Apparently one of the delegates responded sarcastically, asking “where’s Cork”.
The obvious answer - "it’s where the majority of our squad come from" - was, apparently, too close to the bone for any of his southern-based counterparts to highlight.
But after a captivating night at Páirc Ui Chaoimh, even if he didn’t make the effort to attend, he now knows where Cork is.