Rugby Union: Limerick holds answer to Irish riddle: Steve Bale goes to the heart of Ireland's rugby country in search of a solution to the crisis of confidence afflicting its national team

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IF IRISH rugby is in terminal crisis, you would never guess it in Limerick. Today Garryowen play Cork Constitution in the All-Ireland League and the ancient city on the Shannon is alive with rugby fervour.

But then this is Limerick and there is nowhere like it in Ireland, nowhere else where rugby is the sporting king. Indeed if all of the emerald isle were like Limerick - if only - there would be no crisis.

Around 10,000 are expected at Dooradoyle, Garryowen's ground on the city's southern outskirts, for this afternoon's match - a huge crowd by Irish standards but even so nothing like the 15,000 who turned up at last season's Limerick derby between Garryowen and Shannon.

Still, it is a fair indication of what rugby means to these people. Garryowen - the club that gave its name to the up-and-under - are the champions, Constitution their predecessors. Garryowen have found defending the title harder than winning it. If Constitution win today, they will go to the top of the First Division, ahead of yet a third Limerick club, Young Munster.

How to explain the hold of rugby here but not in Ireland's other big population centres? For one thing, Limerick folk never had much truck with the Gaelic Athletic Association when the GAA was trying to prevent Irishmen playing such alien games as soccer and rugby. In the old days, anyone who was caught would be summarily banned from hurling and Gaelic football.

It is a social, as much as a sporting, phenomenon. 'In Limerick the game has always been treated as a working man's game - something akin to the Welsh valleys,' Gerry Moore, the marvellously genial immediate past president of the Irish Rugby Union's Munster branch, said.

'It's always been played by all creeds and classes. In Cork, Dublin and Belfast it's an elitist game but here it's a game of the people. Limerick was divided into five parishes and each parish had a rugby team. People became obsessed with rugby.

'The GAA attitude to rugby was never accepted in Limerick. Limerick is rugby union football, and that's reflected in our attitudes. The game is played with a fervour here and, whatever may have happened to the Irish team, the grass roots of rugby football in Limerick are as strong as ever.'

To make the point, Limerick has the three senior clubs in the First Division, another (Old Crescent) in the Second and a fifth (Bohemians) not even in the league, plus a gaggle of junior clubs: all in a city of 65,000 souls. Which is a weakness as well as a strength, since Limerick's rugby-playing talent is perforce spread thinly. Take out a few key players and the effect is disproportionate.

This is precisely what has happened to Garryowen, an endless injury crisis compounded by increased representative demands consequent on last season's success. Belatedly - or so folk here would say - Limerick players have been getting the national recognition they have long deserved.

'We are paying for the success we had last year by having so many involved in the representative scene,' Murray Kidd, a New Zealander in his third and final season coaching Garryowen, said. 'Which means that, as well as the fact that they are not around as much, their minds are on different things.

'In the first couple of years we didn't have the stars; we were head-down arse-up and just had to graft. Through that graft, a number of them have become reasonably well recognised and it's counting against us.'

Kidd, who was 17 when he played on the wing for Taranaki against the 1971 Lions, intended to step down at the end of last season but was persuaded, perhaps against his better judgement, to carry on. A spell in Wales would appeal and his curriculum vitae has been circulated among Welsh clubs but if none comes forward by the end of February he and his family will head home.

He will leave saddened that Irish rugby, far from progressing, has seriously declined during his stay, the recent defeat by Scotland being merely the latest setback. Gerry Murphy, the new coach of Ireland, evidently has a mountain as high as nearby Galtymore to climb - caused in large measure by the Irish Rugby Union's unforgivable tardiness in putting player-support systems into place.

The days when Irish fervour, as found in Limerick, would win international matches are gone for ever. Gerry Moore suggested that 'a lot of people have not come into the Nineties', and, judging by Kidd's pessimism, by the time the Irish do reach the Nineties we will already be into the 21st century.

'The players are there. They haven't got great depth but the talent does exist,' Kidd said. 'But the season is so fragmented between the clubs and provinces and national teams that the players are training for different people all the time and never getting themselves properly fit.'

Then there is scientific fitness testing and monitoring, routine and essential everywhere but Ireland. The Irish squad went through it once but never again, according to Kidd because at pounds 9,000 a time it was deemed too expensive. (Test matches at Lansdowne Road gross something like pounds 1/2 m each.)

In fact, Kidd has done more work of this type with his own Garryowen players than the Irish management have with theirs. Bizarre. 'The testing hasn't been put in place to force the players to do the necessary training. The basic level of fitness isn't good. It's a fundamental question of motivation.

'There is nothing much wrong with Irish rugby that putting the right system in place and the right person in charge wouldn't put right. But they seem to be content to trail in last every year. I feel really sorry for Gerry Murphy: he may be a very good coach but he needs the system to change.

'Things are considerably worse than when I arrived. I deal with some of the players. I see their mental attitude and that has deteriorated. It's affecting my team. We had three guys in the internationals last year and for them to be subjected to all the hammerings in every newspaper and then play a blinder for Garryowen . . . it just doesn't happen.'

This is not quite a counsel of despair. Kidd believes the Irish union should appoint a rugby supremo of the distinguished calibre of Alex Evans, the Australian at Cardiff, or John Hart, the former New Zealand coach. Andy Leslie, an ex-All Black captain, was brought in to do a temporary job through the first half of the season but has now gone home, which sounds like more trouble than it was worth.

But, as Limerick cynics might ask, what else could you expect in 'elitist' Dublin? In Limerick the atmosphere is different, the feeling buoyant. Typically Irish, really. In Limerick we are at the heartbeat of Irish rugby and here it still beats strongly.

(Photograph omitted)