Limerick rugby full of heroes

By Richard Harris

The Telegraph, London

May 24, 2002




How do you explain a love affair?


It belongs to the heart, not the head. Something to be embraced, or spurned - there can be no middle ground.


There are those who stare blank-faced when I talk of rugby but others instantly understand my breathless enthusiasm and stomach-churning anxiety. We are the lucky ones.


Munster rugby, Limerick rugby. Through gritted teeth, as we approach Saturday's historic occasion at the Millennium Stadium - Munster v Leicester in the Heineken Cup final - I must also  acknowledge Cork's wonderful contribution to Munster rugby over the years, but the essence

of the game I know and love is to be found in Limerick.


The heroes of Limerick rugby are my heroes. Gladiators, square-jawed warriors who represent us on the battlefield. They are also heroes off  the field - men who can drink, sing and talk of great deeds. I am intensely proud of individuals such as Peter Clohessy, Mick Galwey, Anthony Foley

and all the boys. Keith Wood, whose father I used to play alongside, is another hero. He lives the rugby life we all dream of.


It was a bitter-sweet day two years ago at Twickenham when we lost to Northampton, but the sweet lingers longest. There must have been 30,000 Munster fans in red - an unforgettable and moving sight - and they conducted themselves beautifully. Supporting his rugby team is almost the only way a Munsterman can display his allegiance; we have no other comparable sporting or cultural outlet.


Rugby has always been there for me, even if I have occasionally gone AWOL. I have enjoyed its many pleasures, as a player and spectator. Perhaps it is the sociability or possibly it's just the sheer physical pleasure that appeals. Very little on this earth can beat soaking your body back to life

in a warm bath after an afternoon of cold rain, mud and pain with the prospect of pints and high jinks ahead. A warm glow envelopes you.


Or maybe rugby simply brings out the best in people. It's a chicken and egg situation. Does rugby simply attract the sort of person whose friendship and qualities I enjoy or does the game itself - the actual physical confrontations and challenges it presents - help mould and create those people? Answers on a postcard, please. There is an instant recognition and understanding between rugby people. Would that it be so easy in the 'showbiz' world where, you may have noticed, I am not

universally popular.


I remember phoning Sir John Gielgud on his 90th birthday. I didn't know him really but admired the man tremendously from afar.


"Happy birthday, Sir John," I bellowed down the line. "This is Richard Harris phoning from the Bahamas, just to wish you Happy Birthday and thank you for everything you have done for British theatre. We are hugely in your debt."


"Harris, you say," replied Sir John. "I don't know a Harris. Of course there is that very loud, vulgar chap from Ireland. Did the Camelot thing. Very bad reputation with drink and women I believe. Very bad indeed.  Rugby chap. Anyway, thank you so very much for phoning from Bermuda. So sweet." "Bahamas, Sir John, Bahamas." "Yes, yes, yes, yes. The sun shines there as well, I believe."


I was a second-row at school but seriously miscast. I should have been a flanker. I loved roving, snaffling tries, putting in big hits - though we called them tackles in those days. I attended Crescent College, played in two Munster Schools finals and represented Munster Schools and Munster

Under-20 - I still wear that very red shirt and intend to be buried in it, I have left instructions - before TB struck and I discovered books, women and a hitherto unsuspected, or submerged, desire to act and show off.


God, they were great days. To play rugby and glory in your fitness. To feel invincible. If you could just bottle the moment. Rugby was life in Limerick. It was a love of sport and also a parish thing. The junior  teams were based around parishes and local pride was always at stake. We were

tribes and you needed visas to move safely between parishes. Inter-marriage was almost unthinkable. Garryowen man/Shannon girl? Scandalous.


The rugby was intense and bloody hard - savage in fact - but, because we were neighbours, people were respectful and forgiving. Sometimes it was "them" against us - touring sides, the interprovincial champs - and the competing parishes became a tight-knit diocese. We could be quite

parochial. The players and supporters in far-flung Cork - the Posh -  hated us and the feeling was reciprocated. Deep down - so buried as to not be ordinarily visible - we also respected each other as fellow Munstermen, but such solidarity was only rarely displayed or articulated.


I have spoken before about my hatred of Frank McCourt's book Angela's Ashes and the film adaptation by Alan Parker - a highly selective, misleading and unbalanced look at life in Limerick. Let's put the record straight. Limerick is one of the most progressive cities in Ireland, an industrial powerhouse and home to one of our great universities. Of course, it has known hard times, but it is a city in harmony with itself, a city that has never climbed above its station, yet will reach the

pinnacle of its aspirations. It has history, culture and humour. Above all, it has rugby.


Not that we are above a little sporting chicanery. Do you remember those horrible quartered leather balls we used in the old days at school? Well, when the opposition were awarded a penalty in a kickable position two things happened, almost simultaneously. One of us would absentmindedly

kick the ball to the touchline, while our captain was protesting to the referee or perhaps one of the forwards was receiving a lecture for over-vigorous play.


In the meantime our reserves had been "preparing" a second ball on the touchline, soaking it in a bucket of water until it weighed two or three pounds heavier than regulation. This was the ball that would be returned to play, totally unkickable. Happy days.


I adore Thomond Park, which I could see and hear from my bedroom in our house on the Ennis Road. It is the citadel of Munster rugby; we have never lost a European Cup game there in seven years. If Ireland played there we would never lose. Did I ever tell you I scored 19 tries and one dropped goal on the hallowed turf in various schools and junior games? I can recall every score in intimate detail. My proudest achievements - that and playing alongside Keith Wood's dad Gordon, the Ireland and Lions prop - the day he scored four tries, appearing on the wing, in a cup match

against Mungret.


I would give up all the accolades - people have occasionally written and said nice things - of my showbiz career to play just once for the senior Munster team. I will never win an Oscar now, but even if I did I would swap it instantly for one sip of champagne from the Heineken Cup. Good

luck, boys.