It was a packed house that night, more than 26,000 in the new Thomond Park, and it could have been sold out over and over again. Two years on it’s Australia, another top southern hemisphere international side, one of the Big Three, another titanic battle. This time, however, it’s a Munster win, but — no full house, nearly 5,000 empty seats. Why?
Several very pertinent reasons, starting with the build-up, or lack of. The All Black game was flagged for months, sparked worldwide interest; this game? So low-key that some Munster supporters weren’t even aware it was on. Gary Mills from Cobh is a former Rockwell College starlet, packed down there behind John Fogarty, lined out later with the likes of Ronan O’Gara and Donncha O’Callaghan with Cork Con; according to his wife Evelyn, he’s a fierce follower of Munster, but wasn’t going to this game. Reason? “Knew nothing about it! I’m not sure I’d have been able to go anyway; it’s midweek, this is a family business (Great Island Motors), I’m here six days a week, eight to seven — you can’t clock off in this climate! I’ll watch it on TV.”
Live TV, one factor; combine that with the climate — economic and seasonal — and you have two more reasons. In those circumstances, what’s wrong with a crowd of 21,314, asks Charleville RFC long-time official, Henry Greensmith? “We had problems getting rid of our international tickets, especially for the lesser games, but for this game we actually had to go back for more tickets, we sold out our allocation. I know Charleville is handy enough to Limerick but this is still a working day, the weather is atrocious — who can complain about the attendance?”
Right on mate, said Brett Lynam, a full-blooded Aussie but with a local qualification. “I’m from Brisbane originally, but I live in Waterford and I came here with two lads from Dungarvan. I normally follow Munster so I’m a regular here, changing allegiances just for tonight! I’m happy to pay €40 for tonight, I think that’s very reasonable, an international team playing a very successful provincial team.”
One of those friends from Dungarvan was Eamon Phelan, involved with the local rugby club; he echoed the experience of Charleville’s Henry Greensmith. “Maybe they got their pricing a little bit wrong, but having said that, we sold our full allotment in Dungarvan. Look, 21,000 is a good crowd, especially for a midweek match, on a dirty night, between two international weekends. But Munster are a special crowd, we’ll turn up anyway to support this team.”
The defining word has to go to Pat Shanahan, however, another man who — along with his son Dan — made a long trip to Limerick, from his home in Moyvane, Co. Kerry. Long before kick-off, Pat and Dan were in their seats in the middle of the West Stand, oblivious to the driving wind and rain. “I’m coming to this ground since 1967, the days of Noisy Murphy (Noel, renowned international of the 60s) and all those lads,” said Pat, “I was here for the All Black game two years ago, the official opening, and I was here as well for 1978 game, still have the programmes from all those games. It’s come on a long way, on the field and off — fitness levels, atmosphere, the whole lot. Back then you’d be lucky to see a couple of hundred; this place was only a shed, then it progressed to a covered stand, now this, a superb modern stadium. We have nearly a full house, which is a fantastic achievement in this current economic climate. The atmosphere tonight is as good as ever, the singing and everything getting us into the mood. We have a fine team out there tonight, a young team, mostly local, a team I think is going to do us proud. What we want now is a match that’ll do the same, keep the blood boiling, build in the right Munster spirit.”
They got that, the youngsters outstanding on another famous night in Thomond Park. But again that crowd, that Thomond Park crowd, played their part.