Frankie Sheahan: Myself and Shane Byrne get along now but at the time I hated him

When Frankie Sheahan played for Munster against Leinster, he hated his opposite number in the blue jersey.
Frankie Sheahan: Myself and Shane Byrne get along now but at the time I hated him

That man was usually Shane Byrne. The pair waged a fierce battle for the Ireland number two jersey throughout the early years of the new millennium when rivalry between the two provinces was at its fiercest.

“Myself and Shane Byrne get along very well now but at the time I hated him, absolutely hated him, and I’m sure that was reciprocated,” says Sheahan.

“It wasn’t a personal thing, he was between me and the Irish team. Was it real hate? Not really, but it was a means to get where I wanted to be.

“Was the rivalry over the top? Absolutely not. Go to any community in the country, two local GAA teams or whatever, you must have that rivalry. There’s nothing at all wrong with it.

“Of course, it’s going to go over the top from time to time. I get sick to death reading ex-players, turned pundits going on about it being a disgrace and so on. What the hell do you expect? When you’re out on the pitch and there’s an opponent over your ball, you’re going to do whatever it takes to get him off the ball.

“If you’re thinking he might get hurt in the process of clearing him off your ball, you’re going to make it. If you have to spare a thought for what might happen to him, you have no business playing rugby at that level. You’d be disappointed if you were on the other side of a ruck and didn’t get a rake. It’s nothing personal.”

That competitive animosity mainly came naturally to Sheahan, but if it didn’t, he knew how to take himself to that place.

“If there isn’t an edge going into a game, you have to create it. I remember watching a movie and there was an NFL guy talking about how he motivated his team. He tells himself that his opposite man wants to physically hurt his wife and children and he would brainwash himself into believing that.

“And it’s effective, because if you get yourself into that state of mind, you will get yourself to a whole new level. You won’t hate the fella because you were rooming with him the week before but you’ll certainly be trying to create the hate for that particular match.”

Admittedly, the ferocity of the Leinster-Munster rivalry only arrived with the professional era. There had been well-contested games between the provinces in the amateur days, but for a period interest waned.

“One of the first Munster-Leinster games I remember was the famous one with 300 people in Garryowen, I think it was 1997,” Sheahan recalls. “I came on as a sub. It just wasn’t a big deal at the time.

“But that didn’t last long and there were some great matches and some tense moments. There was an almost unbelievable game at Donnybrook when the final score was something like 48-42 in our favour.”

Two massive Heineken Cup matches, the first won by Munster at Lansdowne Road and the second by Leinster at Croke Park, ratcheted up the rivalry, especially among the supporters.

Friction on the terraces and stands tends to exceed genuine ill-feeling on the pitch but Sheahan recalls a special moment when the Leinster fans shared him a little warmth.

“After my Salbutamol ban, my first match back was against Leinster in Dublin and there was a lovely touch when the home crowd gave me a special round of applause as if to show how they sympathised with me for what had happened,” he says.

“So I suppose we go shoulder to shoulder when it comes to supporting Ireland and it’s red and blue when it comes to Munster and Leinster.

“We won that match and wins like that were great because we had an understrength team at the time. But the battle for the Irish team was always very intense.

“Shane Byrne and I would have been battling for the number two jersey, Marcus Horan and Reggie Corrigan for number one, Donncha O’Callaghan and Malcolm O’Kelly for the second-row, David Wallace and Keith Gleeson for seven, Alan Quinlan with Eric Miller or someone like that.

“Everybody was going head to head with their opposite man. It was more than a Leinster-Munster game, it was a final trial as well, and up front certainly we would have been showing them the love to reflect that.

“The match that really stands out for me is the one we lost against them in the Celtic League final in 2001 when Eric Miller got sent off. It was there for the taking and we should have won. You always remember the games you lost more than the ones you won. They’re the ones that haunt you.”

Frankie happily recalls the 2009 game when Munster won convincingly at the RDS where Leinster hadn’t lost for a long time.

“I reckon that was the best panel we ever had. We had so much experience, so many internationals. You had Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes as the starting Irish front-row with Freddie Pucciariello, myself and Tony Buckley on standby.

“You had Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Mick O’Driscoll and Donnacha Ryan in the second-row, you had a back-row of Denis Leamy, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, James Coughlan, Billy Holland.

“You had two international scrum-halves, Peter Stringer and Tomás O’Leary and then Ronan O’Gara and Paul Warwick, who was as good as any international.

“Take the forwards, we had a second pack who could drive the first pack up and down the back pitch in Thomond Park. We beat Ospreys by a record score in the quarter-final of the Heineken but we fell off the cliff when Leinster beat us in the semi-final at Croke Park.” And today’s game?

“Form goes out the window. In that Munster dressing room, they need to create that hate we spoke about earlier.”

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