From McNiece’s Tree with the Robins #ULBohs #Limerick #Munster #Rugby

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Limerick is a city that is famous worldwide for its proud rugby tradition. From the early 1900’s to the present day, intense rivalries on the pitch have led to great stories and friendships off it. Over a seven week period Daragh Frawley will give an insight into the seven senior All Ireland League Rugby Clubs based in Limerick. Third in the series looks at Division 1B side, UL Bohemians.

“AT the time, even though we were in the lower divisions, the All Ireland League was the be all and end all.

We were the poor cousins in a way as the teams in the higher divisions were getting thousands through the gate on a weekly basis, whereas we were getting hundreds- but we still loved every second of it”.

Those are the words of UL Bohemians past player and former club president Frank Malone, who has been a member of the club since 1962.

Founded in 1922 under Jack McNiece’s tree on O’Connell Avenue, the club has experienced many ups and downs in its 94-year history.

The Junior cup winning side in 2009

Above: The Junior Cup winning side of 2009

The Early years

“Shortly after its founding the club enjoyed a successful opening decade on the pitch and faired very well in the Transfield cup, which would have been the holy grail back in those days”, explained Malone.

When asked why the then Bohemians wore red jerseys, the answer was simple:

“It was the only colour that Nester’s shop had left at the time!

When Malone joined the club in 1962 Bohemians were one of the strongest clubs in the country.

That same year, Bohs won the Munster Senior Cup, beating Old Crescent in the final.

“It all went downhill the year after I joined the club” he joked.

“The club was famous for its personalities and its characters around that time, none more so than the legendary Jerry Saunders who had razor sharp wit.

“There were always intense rivalries in the build up to the cup games during the 50’s and 60’s. The regular watering hole was Paddy Reid’s Pub where Mickey Martins is now on the Augustinian Lane, and there was great slagging in there and Saunders would always be in the middle tearing strips off someone!

Winning the Senior cup in 62’ was understandably huge for the club, but since then that competition in particular has caused a lot of pain.

“We have come agonizingly close on a few occasions but thus far to no avail. I remember the 1980 final loss against Young Munster when John Madigan and Ken Rennison stood head and shoulders above the rest on the pitch but we missed out on the trophy.

“We made a balls of it in ‘84 having beaten Shannon and Crescent only to lose to Waterpark in the semi final in the last few minutes after thinking the game was won.

“In more recent times the 2012, 15-14 final defeat to Cork Con at the Mardyke in stoppage time was very difficult take, but that’s sport.

The Roundabout way

When the All Ireland League was formed in 1990 Bohemians didn’t make the cut. Instead playing in the Munster Senior League, the club experienced a downturn in fortunes and struggled for a number of years according to Malone.

After the restructuring of the league, all senior teams were allowed compete in the AIL, and Bohs began their journey in Division 4.

Incoming club president Sean O’Gorman and Malone both recall a turbulent start.

“We had a terrible start (to the league). We were languishing at the bottom of division 4 with Sligo and UCG (who are no longer in existence).

We survived that season and people within the club got together and put a plan in place for the next few seasons.

“I remember Garrett Fitzgerald (Now CEO of Munster) coming down to Annacotty and he said that we have seven players of AIL standard.

Picking out memorable AIL games from that time, Malone remembers a battle royal against Trinity College in Dublin.

“It was a turning point for me. We played Trinity on a shocking January day and went 22-3 down. They had a few Leinster players at the time and we looked dead and buried.

“We clawed our way back and went ahead by a score in stoppage time but Trinity kicked a late penalty and we thought that was that.

“But the lads rallied and Brian Spillane caught our drop off and the ref gave us a penalty ‘in 15 on the 10-metre line’, and former Limerick hurler Ollie Moran who was playing with Bohs at the time, split the posts to win the game. There was a parade of drink had on the way home from Dublin after that!

Going forward

“At that time we had guys like Jim Culhane, Anthony Reddan, Sean Browne, Peter Rolls, Brian Spillane, and Tommy Lenihan, but to name a few, who performed heroically on the pitch, but like all clubs, players came and went.

“We got into the third division and it was a very difficult league recalls”, O’Gorman.

“At the time it was the first six teams going up and we finished seventh. We had a very strong pack with Martin Cahill in the front row, but no real depth in the backline.

“The following year only one team went up, but Trinity beat us to get promoted. We were the nearly men for a while but we won the charity cup which was a big deal, beating Eoin Reddan’s Crescent who were a first division side at the time.

“At the fourth time of asking we got into Division two and things began to change for the better”.

Turning point

In 1999 the University of Limerick amalgamated with Bohemians and UL Bohemians came to be.

“Mike Tewkesbury came in from England and raised the standards immeasurably. It essentially became a professional setup”, recalls O’Gorman.

There were 65 players on the pitch training for the first team and there wasn’t room to swing a cat!

“Tewkes was a great coach. He always put the emphasis on defence and we were always within a score of a team. He always had us ready and his attention to detail was unbelievable.

“That was definetly a turning point for me because there was competition in the squad for places and that drove everyone on. I remember a South African winger by the name of Andrew Coetzee who was in Limerick for a while. He played with us and we used to put him in No.8 for 5-metre scrums. He was lightning fast and built like a brick sh*t house!

While Tewkesbury coming in to take the reins was a turning point, O’Gorman remembers the game which he believes changed the mentality of the senior team.

“Justin O’Connell (brother of Paul) was a very good captain for us and a genuine leader. We played Old Wesley in a division two game and had a player sent off in the first half.

We were down to 14 men with our backs to the wall but Justin rallied the troops and we battered them. We put together a few serious wins after that which created momentum and winning became a habit after that”

The club went on from there to gain multiple promotions in the following seasons, and came within a whisker of an AIL division one final in 2007 only for a last minute intercept try against Cork Con in Temple Hill to deny them.

Before we go any further, at the request of both O’Gorman and Malone, Sean “Skull” Browne must be mentioned. According to them he is the only player to play across all four divisions with UL Bohemians through the 1990’s and 2000’s.

“Skull Brown was a war horse of a player and an even better character off the pitch. He eventually retired in 2006 but his wife thought he retired 5 years before that!

5 November 2005; Barry Murphy, UL Bohemians. AIB All Ireland League 2005-2006, Division 1, Shannon v UL Bohemians, Thomond Park, Limerick. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Above: Barry Murphy in action for UL Bohs in 2005, Photo credit: Sportsfile

Highs and Lows

Like all players across all sporting codes there are days you’ll remember for the better, and days that you wish you could change.

For O’Gorman, a particular AIL game against St. Marys College of Dublin in 2004 sticks out.

“We played them on the back pitch in Thomond Park and Johnny Sexton was just out of school and in their starting line up. I remember a young Keith Matthews breaking the line and offloading to hooker Gordon Ryan. The entire front row ended up being involved in the play, getting their hands on the ball and offloading as we broke up the pitch. Matthews then finished it off under the posts and we beat a very fancied Mary’s team for a finish.

Winning the Transfield Cup in Thomond Park in 2006 brought a tear to the eye too for O’Gorman, but both he and Malone highlighted the 2012 AIL 1B title win on the final day as up there with the best.

“We won promotion under Cullie Tucker while I was president in April 2012. (Beating Belfast Harlequins 34-14 in Annacotty on the final day of the season). We won the under 20 league and cup and the u14’s and u16’s leagues. The women’s team won the AIL too, so that was certainly my proudest memory in the club”, said Malone.

Winning the Junior Cup in 2009 against Young Munsters in Dooradoyle is a fond memory for the Bohemian stalwarts, but the Junior Cup trophy, much like the Senior cup, has brought tears and anguish to the robins.

One such memory that sticks out for O’Gorman is the 2006 Junior Cup Final against Garryowen.

“We went 44 games unbeaten that year in the seconds league and had beaten Garryowen on three occasions throughout the season but slipped up in the final. That was certainly a bitter pill to swallow.

Anthony Hartigan and Cathal O'Neill hold the Junior and Transfield cups aloft in 2009

Above: Anthony Hartigan and Cathal O’Neill hold the Junior and Transfield Cups aloft in 2009.

The future of the AIL

Looking at the AIL going forward, both O’Gorman, Malone and club captain Ian Condell feel that the league has suffered in recent years, making it difficult to market it as a valuable asset to Irish rugby.

For O’Gorman the memory of him getting his first senior cap was like winning an AIL title.

“It was unreal. When I got the nod to get my first start I was bursting with pride. Nowadays its not as big but the fellas that take the pitch for each of their clubs know what it means.

For Condell, the big issue is coming out of school and being put into an academy rather than giving guys an opportunity to experience the AIL.

“All the talk is going to an academy, which you need to a certain extent, but the emphasis needs to be on game time at clubs and proving yourself at senior level.

The ‘A’ competition is a waste of time in my opinion. I’ve played with many of the current crop of Munster players and they all learned their trade in the AIL with Bohs.

It was without doubt a stepping-stone for Tommy O’Donnell, Dave Foley, David Kilcoyne and JJ Hanrahan.

Tommy O'Donnell scores for UL Bohs against Cork Con in the AIL div 1 semi final 2007

Above: Tommy O’Donnell scores a try for UL Bohs in the 2007 AIL Semi-Final

For Malone the B&I cup is problematic for not just UL Bohs, but many other clubs in the AIL.

“Both the B&I cup and the paneling of schools players need to be looked at. The club game is being badly damaged by a combination of both and you have underage clubs in Limerick having to pool together players to field a team to play Newcastle West or Scariff. It’s scandalous.

“Of course you miss the days of the huge AIL crowds but if there is to be a time in the near future where the club game gets back to the heights it once reached it needs to be done right, according to all three.

“It needs to be marketed well first and foremost, I remember players being on the side of CIE buses not so long ago when the hype surrounding the AIL games was huge. It was always the talk of the town and the grounds in Limerick would be packed each Saturday.

“Everyone wants to go to the big game, but without the club game in rugby there will be no big games.

13-9-14 AIL UL Bohemian v Belfast Harlequins Thomond Park

Above: UL Bohs warm up for an AIL game last season in the shadow of Thomond Park

Aspirations

For club captain Ian Condell the coming season is huge in the context of where the club is aiming.

“Personally we are in it to win it- everyone is. At a minimum we want to make the playoffs but we’re under no illusions, it’s going to take a serious effort across the entire squad and beyond. We have a new coaching ticket and we are a tight knit group, so we know we must start well and be competitive throughout the season to fulfill our potential.

Being a UL Bohemian

For Malone and his 54 years with the club he describes it as the experience of a lifetime.

“The memories will last an eternity and year on year the stories that are told never get old. I have made friends for life that I wouldn’t have made if I wasn’t part of Bohs and the rugby community in Limerick.

For Condell it’s the sense of community within the club.

“I’m a Laois man originally and I’ve been with the club for the best part of a decade. You get people from all over the country at Bohs but everyone who takes the pitch wears the jersey with pride. I worked my way up through the club playing at all levels and it’s a privilege to have captained a club that gave me an opportunity as a youngfella.

This article is in memory of the late, great Shane Lee.

by Daragh Frawley

[email protected]

Twitter: @LeFrawls