MUNSTER’S recent rugby success is based on casting off its “snooty, middle-class” image, says an academic whose research suggests the province’s “identity” is an invention of the professional rugby era.
Liam O’Callaghan of Bruff, a PhD student at Leeds Metropolitan university, says: “Taking the Munster team itself, an entire historical profile has been built up around them that they’ve always been competitive, with a great record against competitive teams, which they have.
“But did they ever capture the public imagination apart from 1978? I’m not altogether sure. It was telling in the build-up to Munster-Leinster last year that while the media usually cites previous encounters between teams, there was nothing to call on in this instance.
“The pilgrimages to Thomond Park for the Heineken Cup have their foundation myth in the 1978 team, and it’s no accident that a book about and dramatisation of that game have come out since this Munster XV have come to prominence.”
O’Callaghan points out that he’s not criticising “the Munster rugby phenomenon”.
“It’s great for the future of the game,” he says. “Some of the new fans may lose interest if the team starts losing, but some of them will stay on anyway. Munster rugby needs to popularise the game and disassociate itself from its snooty, middle-class past.”
O’Callaghan points out that while most journalists are aware of the fact that the Munster phenomenon is: “a great novelty with no great historical precedent”, there are some who try to link this to a long tradition of Munster rugby.
“Press reports and books show Munster rugby wasn’t nearly as cohesive as one thinks, but was divided along two lines — geographically first, with rival Cork and Limerick interests at the committee table. Limerick supporters were often disappointed with the selection of the provincial team. Because Cork would always have a majority on the selection committee, people in Limerick felt sometimes inferior Cork players were accommodated.
“The second line of division was social class. While there are significant shades of grey, with some Cork clubs rightly refuting this theory, Cork rugby has always been largely regarded as middle-class, a sport for the professional, financial sectors and for fee-paying schools. Seven of the eight Cork players on the Heineken Cup-winning team went to fee-paying schools, for instance.”
O’Callaghan points to shades of grey in Limerick rugby’s working class image also.
“In Limerick the working-class infiltration was largely confined to junior clubs which were on the periphery. Young Munster were staunchly working-class, but until the 50s they were the only senior club in Limerick — applications from Shannon and Richmond for senior status were rejected, for example.
“I don’t think that was done cynically — at that time the branch’s main source of income was the Munster Senior Cup, so there was a motivation to keep that competition for senior cups, to keep it viable — and on the playing side if junior clubs were kept junior, then senior clubs could take players for the Senior Cup.
“In the past there were a lot of disparate identities in Munster rugby — you had working-class Limerick, middle-class Cork, and the professional banking classes in provincial towns. It wasn’t the unified, cohesive force of provincial identity we’ve seen since the onset of professional rugby.
“There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just the way it was.”
O’Callaghan points to parallels between Munster and Ulster, interestingly enough: “What you also have in the Ulster mix is religion, of course, and it’s largely middle-class, but there’s a parallel in that a certain identity is put out there.
“The Munster XV have values associated with them now which, despite 1978 and the record against touring teams, really didn’t exist in the past.”
O’Callaghan points out that for Munster rugby, the biggest test is yet to come.
“This is a golden generation of players, but with their player numbers there’s only so long that Munster can sustain that success. The big test for the fans, the authorities and the team itself is when we start getting high-profile retirements — basically when we don’t get past the group stages of the Heineken Cup. The huge shift, from club-centred local identities to provincial unity about one XV has been terrific for the game.
“While there’s bound to be some fall-off in support if the team is less successful, it bodes well for the future of the game in general.”
*Liam O’Callaghan will deliver his paper, “Reflecting on the brave and the faithful: the invention of tradition in Munster rugby”, at the third conference of Sports History Ireland, which is being held in NUI Galway tomorrow.
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Silence eh? I suppose it wouldn't help to point out that I mentioned this paper on the forum last week?
On the piece itself, I would be in agreement with the vast majority of it and the spirit in which it was written.
To be fair, you did.
But the points stand. If anything i suspect the author had to tone it down to gain credibilty, what with the power of the pro jock media. There's nothing there that the SFI didn't explore in more detail, with greater passion
But it's not exactly rocket science. Most rugby is played in fee paying schools in Cork. Munster is a new sporting phenomenon. The Pope is partial to a bit of mass etc.
But that's no longer true. I would say the majority of rugby played in Cork now is in the county, among club sides. Sure the quality of underage rugby is proably highest at the fee paying schools 9the amount of training they do is massive) but the game has expanded far, far beyond that in 20 years.