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'JBM Rang Me Up With A Huge Sense Of Embarrassment': When Cork Rugby And GAA Clashed

'JBM Rang Me Up With A Huge Sense Of Embarrassment': When Cork Rugby And GAA Clashed
By Gavan Casey Updated

Given the #CorkWeek that was in it, our own Gavan Casey travelled south to his native land to catch up with a number of Cork sporting icons. His first stop was Cork Con, where he spoke with Cork and Irish rugby great Donal Lenihan about, amongst other things, his passion for the GAA.

In his autobiography, Donal Lenihan: My Life In Rugby, the author describes his disdain towards the 'Real Gaels' of a bygone era, and the attitude with which he was confronted due to his being a rugby player who frequented GAA stadiums watching his beloved Cork.

"During the summer break from rugby I would travel to all the Cork matches," he writes, "but you would always get some gombeen shouting at you, ‘Aren’t you at the wrong game?’"

Years later he stands proud as ever, pitchside at his old stomping ground in Ballintemple, right shoulder turned towards the fence which separates Cork Constitution RFC from Páirc Uí Rinn. Despite the 'gombeens' who plagued him in the '80s, Cork sport - Irish sport - has moved on, and the son of a man who had the rare distinction of representing both Rebels and Kingdom was never likely to turn his back on the national games:

I was born and raised in the GAA. I loved nothing better than, during the summer, in your off-season, following the Cork hurlers, Cork footballers. Days out in Thurles for a Munster hurling final.

I mean, no sport in the world could match the intensity, the rivalry and just the spirit and sense of occasion that you get in a Munster hurling final. That's part of my DNA.

I'm really looking forward to Páirc Uí Chaoimh being completed and hopefully even seeing a rugby international there in a World Cup, which would be phenomenal when you consider where we've come from.

I mentioned Semple Stadium. When you look at the reaction of the Tipperary County Board...because they haven't got a rugby match! I mean, who would have sensed that you'd be in this position 20 years ago? It's all for the good of sport. Ireland would have no possibility of hosting a Rugby World Cup without the backing of the GAA. I think if there was one event that would unite the whole island of Ireland, and all of the different sports within Ireland, it would be Ireland winning that Rugby World Cup bid.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RErtor3q7rc

Inter-sport tensions are now thankfully placed firmly in Cork sports' rear-view, but in truth have only been overtaken by a new sense of unity in the past decade.

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It's worth pointing out that, in 2005, Cork were one of the few counties who originally rejected the notion of Ireland's football and rugby teams playing home games at Croke Park while Landsdowne Road was being redeveloped. Somewhat ironically, it was Cork men Stephen Ireland and Ronan O'Gara who opened both national teams' respective accounts at the home of GAA.

By then, the Cork County Board had softened their stance on the transition, but their original opposition was the source of much contention on Leeside, upon which Donal Lenihan reflects ruefully. However, the Irish rugby great is also quick to acknowledge the impact that opening the doors of Croker to 'foreign sports' had, not just on the Irish sporting landscape, but in its ability to showcase our evolution as a nation.

Everybody in Cork sport has always supported sportspeople in other sports, and has been very proud of them. So to have Cork as one of the few counties who voted against opening Croke Park for both soccer and rugby when Landsdowne Road was being redeveloped, was actually incredibly disappointing.

Jimmy Barry-Murphy, who I'd know really well, rang me up with a huge sense of almost embarrassment. Billy Morgan was another. I remember meeting fellas like Tomás Mulcahy and Ger Cunningham, and the views of the County Board at that time were not representative of the players of the era.

But that has all moved on. The success, in terms of what happened when Croke Park was opened up; that incredible day when Ireland defeated England, the respect for 'God Save The Queen' when it was played, and then a rendering of Amhrann na bhFiann I think was never heard even in Croke Park - when you consider the amount of fantastic All-Ireland finals you've had there over the years... It was almost like a nation growing up together, and sport was the reason why that happened. Look, things have changed down here in Cork, even since that vote was taken. And the fact that Páirc Uí Chaoimh is now on the agenda to host a World Cup game should we get it, I think is just reflective of that.

Lenihan's own relationship with the GAA spans wider than having a GAA-playing father or going to watch Cork in the summer.

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The 57-year-old regrettably informs of his brief involvement with Kilkenny GAA or, at least, one of its golden sons. And despite his love for hurling in particular, the Cork Con and Ireland great can't help but get one parting dig in at an old pal who broke his heart in 1982:

We've always had a huge association with the GAA in Con, even down through the years. Blackrock Hurling Club, many times when they've had problems with their pitches, they come down and train here.

I remember Christy Heffernan, the great Kilkenny full-forward, he came to Cork. But he used to spend his winters training with us down the back field. I remember throwing him into the second row one night - Christy was a big boy - just to show him what it was really like. All he was doing was complaining about his ears coming out of the scrummaging!

We helped to toughen him up. I'm not sure whether Cork appreciated that because he killed us in one All-Ireland final that I can remember.

Those bloody rugby lads.

SEE ALSO: Donal Lenihan Features In Our All-Time Cork Rugby XV

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