In his weekly Limerick Leader column, Aidan Corr hears some famous Leinster rugby players remember their experiences of playing in Limerick.
It is always pleasant to see sportspeople with long and distinguished careers honoured in some way during their lifetime and I was particularly happy to see Blackrock College RFC name their new gymnasium after their former Irish international, Lion and Leinster wing Niall Brophy two weeks before Christmas.
I have had the pleasure of sharing company at rugby functions with the great player in recent years and last November in Dublin he called me aside to recall a game that, he claimed, put him on the road to rugby stardom.
Even though that match took place in Thomond Park 58 years ago, I still remember it. As soon as it was announced I was off down O’Connell Street to Nestor’s Sports Shop, which was situated next to the Augustinian Church, for a schoolboy ticket.
It was not often that one of the top teams in European rugby came to Limerick and the Garryowen FC v Racing Club de France fixture was as big as it got in this rugby-mad city.
“I am still eternally grateful to Limerick,” Niall told me at the annual Rugby Awards Night. “I was only 20 and on the fringe of the national team and was called in as a guest for the light blues. I felt that one big game would swing it for me and this was it. It was my first game in Thomond Park and I was determined to make the most of it.”
From Clontarf, the big Blackrock College man delivered that day. He used to be described as “a clever winger”. A national sprint champion, he had tremendous pace and had the strength of a back-row. Less than three years before that game in Thomond Park, Niall had captained ‘Rock’ to a Leinster Schools Junior Cup title and was a member of the college side that lifted the senior title in 1954, beating a Belvedere College team that was captained by Tony O’Reilly.
Brophy, whose son is married to the daughter of former Bohs and Ireland out-half Mick English, won 20 Ireland caps, the first of those while playing with UCD, and with former St Munchin’s College boarder Bill Mulcahy from Rathkeale and a former Bohs man, was one of the first two students of the university to be selected for a Lions tour, which in 1959 played in Australia and New Zealand.
Mention of the famed AJF O’Reilly brings me back to 1998. I had co-written a book for the late great Bohemian RFC clubman Sean Fielding which included a picture of the first six Aer Lingus aer hostesses to fly the Shannon/New York route in 1959. The bould Sean sent a copy of the book off to AJF and to our surprise and delight back came a reply and a VIP invitation for the two of us to the Heinz 55 race meeting in Leopardstown.
It was like being a millionaire for just a day and before the final race, along comes O’Reilly in search of his Limerick guests: “I’ll tell you a good yarn about Thomond Park,” he said to me, “and it’s true. I was playing with ‘Belvo’ against Shannon and we were in one dressing room and they were in the one next to us. The walls must have been very thin because we could clearly hear somebody giving out a decade of the Rosary. ‘That’s it for us now,’ said one of our guys, ‘they even have God on their side.’”
As well as being a wonderful raconteur, Sean Fielding also had a rare talent as a poet:
“Do not bury me on a cold day,
Too often I have been buried in the cold, grey mud of Thomond Park,
Nor on a day when winter winds whistle through leafless branches,
Nor on a day when skies are grey
And even darker clouds of grey obscure the sun.”