Feasibility study will decide the future of Thomond Park

THOMOND PARK’S future as the home venue for Munster’s Heineken European Cup matches isn’t a whole lot clearer after yesterday’s statement by the Munster Branch Development Committee.

It simply announced “the appointment of ARUP Consulting Engineers to conduct a feasibility study in the Limerick area with regard to the provision of a 26,000 capacity rugby stadium. In addition to Thomond Park, the potential of three other sites, including Limerick University, will be assessed and a recommendation made to the Munster Branch, IRFU Development Committee within six weeks.”

For obvious reasons, Thomond Park remains the preferred option for all in Munster, but the IRFU hierarchy won’t be swayed by sentimental concerns.

Chief executive Philip Browne reiterated that “it hasn’t the capacity nor the revenue generating potential to leave it the way it is.”

However, it doesn’t mean the death knell of the ground as at least two options remain open to the Munster Branch. Plan A always was to turn the pitch around and surround it with modern grandstands and terracing which would house 26,000 spectators, about 75% of them seated, and with the requisite corporate hospitality facilities.

Then came the move to buy up 15 houses adjoining the property, but that didn’t wash with the owners. While that option is still regarded as a runner, it is unlikely the IRFU will come up with the money, especially now that the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road is set to cost them at least an extra €30 million.

One of the three alternatives is reported to be a site within the grounds of the University of Limerick, but Pat Whelan, who has been charged to plot the future of the game in Limerick, wouldn’t reveal the other two. However, two rugby grounds come to mind - Young Munster’s junior pitches at Derryknockane beside the new Limerick City bypass, and the UL Bohemian grounds close to the university.

Both have adequate space, although the UL Bohs option would be out of the question unless improved road access could be provided. These are all issues ARUP will consider in the next six weeks.

Meanwhile, Leinster have been dealt a double blow in the build-up to their Heineken Cup clash with Bath at the RDS on Saturday, with Lions winger Denis Hickie and Australian out-half Christian Warner ruled out by injury.

The luckless Hickie, who had to quit the World Cup in 2003 because of a damaged achilles tendon, dislocated his right fibula during a training session on Monday and has undergone surgery.

He will miss the Heineken Cup games against Bath and Glasgow as well as Ireland’s autumn internationals against New Zealand, Australia and Romania.

Warner suffered a knee ligament injury in the recent Celtic League win over Cardiff Blues.

Bath also have problems. Centre Andrew Higgins and prop David Barnes have each been banned for two weeks by the English RFU. Higgins was dismissed for picking up two yellow cards in Bath’s Premiership victory over neighbours Gloucester on Saturday while Barnes was cited for punching in a cup tie against the Ospreys a fortnight ago.

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