Aside from the very strong family connection that exists with rugby folk in Limerick, one of the biggest highlights of any trip to Thomond Park has always been the opportunity to see some of the best exponents of that code this country has had in a generation in action in the flesh.
The likes of Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, John Hayes and – in more recent times – Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo. Though it may surprise some owing to misguided notions regarding my liking or otherwise of Leinster, thus far, my most treasured trip to Limerick was in October 2013 on the Saturday night the great sides collided.
Being present also enabled an ability to proclaim to have seen even more greats of this or any time work their magic. Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Gordon D’Arcy, Rob Kearney and Leo Cullen are just some of those who can now be name-checked. To my inestimable regret, however, Brian O’Driscoll was never seen strutting his stuff.
Gut feeling is, though, that he will one day coach either Leinster or Ireland (most likely both) and the ambition in this corner would be, somehow, someday, to be in situ for a home international to see his charges in action. Not only due to an inclination that if he coached teams to play with a fraction of the brilliance he espoused it’d be worth any admission fee and more, but also because an international rugby game is one of a few items left on the ‘to do’ list.
Thanks as ever to Eoghan D’Arcy, and the assistance and kindness of Trevor O’Rourke, a return was made to the international soccer scene after a 19 year hiatus recently. It will undoubtedly surprise some to learn that, between March 1993 and June 1995, every one of Ireland’s home games was attended. Including the night the riots erupted against England.
A special part of life’s journey that time was, too. On the occasion of the first excursion to Lansdowne Road, for a friendly against Russia, a meeting with Jack Charlton and entire Irish squad of the day was arranged. Those present just happened to include Gary Kelly, Phil Babb and Jason McAteer – making their debuts on the occasion in question.
The soccer sojourn ceased after what would now be considered an unthinkable decision to plump for an end of season friendly against Austria in preference to a Leinster SFC encounter between Meath and Longford! Some would say sense was encountered thereafter, but, that period wouldn’t be swapped for anything.
Mostly as it afforded the opportunity to see some of the country’s best soccer players of my lifetime do their thing. Pat Bonner, Paul McGrath, Steve Staunton, Denis Irwin, Ray Houghton, John Aldridge and, of course, Roy. Indeed, desire to see some of the greats of this generation before they head for the sunset was a lot of what prompted a desire to travel that road again.
To that end, the night of the recent friendly against the US was imbued with a sense of accomplishment. Made better be seeing a few goals and renewing some old acquaintances. You see, it also happened to be my first visit to what has become the Aviva Stadium. To my great surprise and immense pleasure, upon arrival in the ground, one of the first people encountered was the same man who used to handle the tickets for the wheelchair section all those years ago. Links like that make such occasions even more special. Be assured, it won’t be as long until we meet again!
Anyway, one of the other highlights of the night – as if to fall in with a trend here – in terms of the football, was seeing Shay Given play for first time. Certain schools of thought would suggest that it might actually have been the Donegal man’s valedictory outing in green, earnest hope would be that such wouldn’t be the case.
If there was one disappointment, it was that neither John O’Shea or Robbie Keane saw action against Jurgen Klinsmann’s outfit. They should be around for another while yet, mind you, so hopefully that chance will come again. That said, there was plenty to enthuse about from those who were sent into battle against the stars and stripes.
Foremost among them Robbie Brady. The Hull City man is, in my view, at the very least, en route to establishing himself as the fulcrum of the Irish midfield. He was, in the last international of the season, ably supported by Cyrus Christie and Anthony Pilkington and David Meyler and the introduced duo, McClean and McGeady.
Sort out the rapidly escalating mess surrounding James McCarthy’s availability, and genuine feeling is that there’s the nucleus of a good team in place. Hopefully judgement – good or bad – will be able to be passed on that in person once again. Sooner rather than later.