Limerick in heart whatever the crest on chest

Tony McGahan may be opening a new chapter in his rugby life but Munster memories still burn brightly.

Limerick in heart whatever the crest on chest

The Sports Ground in Albury is not a place that holds even a hint of significance in Australian rugby, never mind Irish rugby.

So it’s probably understandable if it passes by Joe Schmidt this weekend. He’s a busy man, the Ireland head coach.

What with hoping his Wolfhounds bare their teeth against England at Kingsholm and the small matter of his first Six Nations campaign hanging heavy overhead, Schmidt has plenty to be getting on with.

But the nondescript ground, across the border in New South Wales but 200 miles from Melbourne in relatively unconquered and some would say unconquerable frontier land for union Down Under, should be showing on the rugby radar back home. Significantly, it is where rivalry will be renewed between two men who have had about as big an impact on Schmidt’s Six Nations battalion as any comers.

Between them Tony McGahan and Michael Cheika oversaw the emergence, development or, at the very least, improvement of a staggering 27 of the 44 members of Ireland’s original panel for the coming seven weeks, not to mention plenty of tonight’s Wolfhounds too.

They may have more pressing matters with McGahan’s new-look Melbourne Rebels and Cheika’s Waratahs kicking off their Super 15 preparations with what’s sure to be a feisty first friendly of the pre-season.

But that doesn’t stop them thinking of their old home. Certainly not McGahan.

“We’re delighted to look back at Munster and Ireland now. We get great satisfaction out of all those blokes that we put through the programme and where they are now,” McGahan told The Irish Examiner in Melbourne this week. “You’ve got Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Zebo, Tommy O’Donnell, Keatley to an extent, JJ Hanrahan. Then you’ve got Archer, Sherry, Kilcoyne, Foley, Nagle.

“Those guys [Murray and Zebo] going on to become Lions. It’s huge for them and whatever about pride personally, I’d just be so delighted for them. You think of all the bollockings they took and the work they put in to get there. I think we were unlucky, we could easily have had Peter O’Mahony on the Tour too and that would have been three out of that group which for one club is fantastic.”

He may have a Rebels crest across his chest now — and it was patently clear just how much he is relishing being back in club management — but for McGahan, Munster will always be a ‘we’, will always be an ‘us’.

Head coach for four seasons that yielded two Celtic League titles but could and almost certainly should have yielded more, McGahan was a pivotal part of Declan Kidney’s support staff for the three previous campaigns that claimed two Heineken Cups. Far from a stop-gap existence in the northern hemisphere, McGahan and his wife Libby made their home in Limerick. And he misses it.

“Yeah I do. There’s lots of surprising little things I miss, little intricacies,” he says. “I miss the people more than anything. We were in Limerick for seven years. We had three children born there. Myself and my wife often reminisce and it’s almost never about the results, almost always about the people. I jumped over to the Irish bar around the corner last night, The Snug, and was looking at the pictures on the wall and that brought back a lot of things that you’d miss.

“My favourite word in the world is ‘roasting’ and I’ve been delighted to be able to use that plenty in the last week [when temperatures in Melbourne soared past 40c]. What we’re really looking forward to as a family is taking everyone back and bringing the kids back to Limerick.”

Some Red stalwarts he has stayed in more frequent touch with than others. One in particular. An inquiry as to whether he had a chance to catch the superb recent Ronan O’Gara documentary brought a smirk to the face.

“No I haven’t, have you got a copy? Is it any good?”

“Really good, it’s on YouTube,” we tell him.

“Geez, send me on the link. I’ve been dying to see it. I do miss him. Great man, great character.”

And one who McGahan saw going straight into coaching. In fact, as it turned out, O’Gara leaned heavily on his old boss when weighing up last summer’s move to Racing Metro.

“Yeah, I was in dialogue with him all the way through,” he reveals. “We had plenty of chats with him about what direction he should go, where he should be looking at and how he should be going to get it. I think he’s made a great choice and will be a huge success in what he’s doing. Going offshore and doing something different is fantastic for Ronan.”

Told that the documentary featured footage of his former charge running drills through French, that wide smirk reappears.

“ROG? With the Cork accent, especially that upper-class Cork accent? Aw I have to watch this!”

It’s understandable, though, that McGahan hasn’t found time for documentaries of late. His return to the club scene after a spell as Robbie Deans’ Wallabies assistant has seen him take on the lowest-profile, yet arguably greatest challenge in the Australian game. The Rebels are four-years-old now. But the splurge and burn era is most definitely over.

High-profile investments in Danny Cipriani, Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor — a more chaotic trio it would be hard to assemble — blew up in the club’s face. Now McGahan is the man setting a new tone.

“Talk about two very different places to be at as a coach,” he says. “At Munster there was an older generation of players there who were on the way out. So [I had] the ability to create all those young players and acclimatise them into professional rugby while at the same time being able to develop further the older guys. But now here at Melbourne we have an entire young generation who are just starting out and we get to develop a whole new project. The tenure of coaches is getting so much shorter and shorter across the board, that you don’t get that opportunity. In any sport.

“So for me looking at that chance to build, to grow from a playing point of view and from a club point of view plus throw in Melbourne as such a liveable city, it was a no-brainer.”

And so to Albury and a reunion with Cheika, before another with Laurie Fisher when the Rebels meet his former Munster assistant and the Brumbies in the regular season. Just like old times?

“We have decamped en masse,” laughs McGahan. “The three of us all had an agreement and bailed out together.”

Gone but not forgotten.

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