JOHN Cantwell roots through a collection of keys. “I’ve got the magic one here somewhere,” he says, then he opens the door on level one of Thomond Park’s East Stand, letting us both into a corporate box with a stunning view of the field.
Stadium director of the new Thomond Park, he brought a fair understanding of the province when he settled into his new job.
“My background has been in Munster for the last 13 years, working in Clare, Cork and Limerick. I was with Shannon Heritage, managing visitor centres such as Bunratty Castle, St John’s Castle and the Cliffs of Moher, while in Cork I oversaw the development of the Mahon Point Shopping Centre.
“When I got the call for Thomond Park there could only be one answer. It’s a privilege to be associated with such a prestigious development.”
A Kilkenny native (“Next best thing to being a Munster man, the lads keep telling me; at least we have someone on the team”), Cantwell has a broad brief. “First off, Thomond is the home of Munster rugby in Limerick and I’m responsible for match-day events running to perfection and to the standard required. But apart from that, the stadium is more than a sporting facility. There’s a business model in place to ensure it’s a commercial animal, operating on a seven-day-a-week basis, running from conferences and seminars through to concerts like the Elton John concert next summer.
“There are other events as well — fashion shows, chamber of commerce dinners, various meetings. Remember, there are only nine or 10 fixtures here per year, and that’s not adequate to pay back the loan taken out to build the place in the first instance.
“So my brief is to enhance the bottom line, to make sure the place is run on a commercially-viable basis and to make sure it’s run as profitably as possible without detracting from the Munster rugby activities, which are obviously the first priority.”
Does that mean Thomond Park is actively in the market to hold those off-field events?
“Absolutely. This level we’re on here, in the East Stand, is totally dedicated to corporate hospitality on match days. We also have a main room for banquet-style, gala dinners and so on. That main room can cater for up to 500 people, but other rooms can from 200 down to 20.
“There are 1,300 dining spaces here on this level, so we’re ideally equipped for the corporate business sector.”
As Cantwell says, however, the stadium is intimately associated with big rugby events. He nods when asked about teething problems.
“The fundamental difference between the old Thomond Park and the new stadium is that the capacity is doubled, which brings certain problems with traffic and access. The big message we want to get out to supporters is to arrive as early as possible, particularly if they’re coming from Cork, Tipperary or Clare.
“There are more cars on the road, both in general and in particular on match days, and there are measures in place to enable people to leave their cars away from the stadium. The zone around the stadium is really a no-parking zone, but there are plenty of multi-storey car parks in Limerick city and we have shuttle buses laid on by Bus Eireann to get people across the city and into the stadium. But the message is really for people who’ve been coming here for 40 years and always used a certain corner near the ground to park — they need to forget about that.”
“Although the capacity’s been doubled, the layout of the ground has changed also,” says Cantwell. “With the extra capacity we’re governed by health and safety regulations, which means we have to allow people to access and egress safely. What it all means is arriving at the ground at least an hour before kick-off, because the days of coming up a few minutes before the start of a game have gone — people can’t be handled in that case.”
It’s worth the early arrival. Though the stadium has changed, its essential character has been preserved. “With the extra capacity it’s still not all-seater, it’s not sterile. There are terraces on four sides to keep that unique atmosphere.
“The only issue is that because people aren’t giving themselves enough time, the place is half-full 10 minutes before kick-off, while in the old days it was packed and rocking for an hour beforehand. But as people get used to the new place I’m sure that’ll be ironed out.”
The match atmosphere is boosted by the terraces, even if the coffers aren’t.
“We could have extended the seating down further, which would have been practical commercially, because a seat sale is more profitable than standing sales. But the objective was to retain the terraces and the atmosphere, so it’s a catch-22.
“In a construction sense the old also had to be integrated into the new, which was a challenge in itself. It’s not a brand spanking-new stadium, and the terraces are much the same as they were.
“An all-seater stadium delivers other advantages, in terms of crowd control — people stay in their seats, they have a dedicated spot. With terraces people move around, and that brings extra challenges in terms of extra stewarding and security, extra vigilance to ensure everyone is safe when they’re on site.”
The stadium director is keen to pay tribute to the other bodies which help make the big match days run smoothly.
“I couldn’t speak highly enough of Limerick City Council and the Garda’s traffic management division. Everybody seems to be on the one page and have the best intentions of its players and spectators in mind.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day — we’re taking lessons from the Glasgow, Montauban and Ireland games, for instance, and it’s an exceptional situation in that you have so many people travelling such long distances to games here.
“There’s only so much you can do. We don’t have a ring road around Limerick, so you have to come through the city centre to get out here.
“We’d have asked the ERC and Sky Sports not to have games kicking off on Friday night at eight o’clock. There’s a large population on the move here at that stage, people going home from work, and you also have a large population of students going home for the weekend. Add in 26,000 people coming against them to a game, that isn’t going to work. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realise that. But we’re working on initiatives like dedicated bus lanes on the day of a match and so on to make sure those problems don’t arise in the future.”
Given the game that takes place this evening, it’s not surprising that Cantwell namechecks one of the heroes of ‘78 when it comes to the successful delivery of the stadium.
“You have to pay tribute to Munster Rugby for putting a very effective redevelopment board in place, with Pat Whelan as chairman and (Munster chief executive) Garret Fitzgerald. That board has worked long hours to deliver this project on time and on budget, and this at a time when other projects are running over budget and over schedule.
“It’s seen as the benchmark when it comes to delivering such projects, and that’s something that needs to be recognised.”