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'I was blessed to join Shannon at that time. The crowds in the AIL were massive'

Andrew Thompson won nine All-Ireland League titles during his playing days with Shannon RFC.

SHANNON REMAIN THE most successful club in All-Ireland League rugby with their nine titles and, remarkably, Andrew Thompson was part of every single one of them.

Now living with his family in Dubai, the 46-year-old is an AIL legend thanks to his central role in Shannon’s unforgettable four-in-a-row run in the late 1990s, before his second stint with the club saw the Limerick men win five more AIL trophies, including a three-peat from 2004 to 2006.

Thompson, who played across the backline, was a key figure in Shannon’s glories, his clever attacking play and sublime place-kicking making him a star during the AIL’s greatest days. Much of this was back when the AIL was shown live on TV, had huge crowds at games, and meant more than provincial rugby. Thompson won 12 Munster Senior Cups with Shannon too.

Not bad for a fella from Laois.

andrew-thompson-celebrates-six-titles-with-shannon Thompson in 2004, celebrating AIL title number six. Source: INPHO

He was a hurler with Borris-in-Ossory at first, the second-youngest of eight siblings who grew up on a beef farm. Thompson was “within a hair’s breadth” of going to a GAA secondary school but instead got into Wilson’s Hospital in Mullingar on a scholarship scheme, taking up rugby for the first time.

Things really kicked off for him when he was in fifth year and an unknown Kiwi coach called Joe Schmidt was drafted by Joe Weafer to coach the senior team. This was during Schmidt’s Mullingar days and the future Ireland boss changed everything for Thompson.

“I was blessed to have Joe coach me for a year,” says Thompson on a videocall from Dubai, where he works as a director of program cost consultancy for the huge firm AECOM.

“We had a good team but barely 16 or 17 players. Joe’s sessions were high on skills. We had a French winger, Nico Drion, who was really fast but couldn’t catch a ball to save his life. Within two weeks, Joe had him catching the ball and he scored 30 or 40 tries for us!

“Without disrespect to the excellent coaches I’ve had throughout my career, Joe was by far the best and I learned more in one year with Joe than I probably learned in my whole career. You have to bear in mind, I was 16 or 17 and learning a huge amount anyway but he was brilliant. We would literally go through games without dropping the ball.”

Thompson shone at out-half in that ’91/92 season – getting positive press from Tony Ward – and caught the eye of several AIL teams, with Shannon proving the most convincing. A deal was agreed to move to Limerick when he left school and he played for the Shannon U18s that summer. 

Unfortunately for Thompson, he was overage for the senior rugby team at Wilson’s in sixth year but he played cricket. On invitation from Shannon, he also featured in a one-off game for Munster against a Castleisland president’s XV, getting an eye-opener as to the quality of players like Mick Galwey, Peter Clohessy, Brian Spillane and Eddie Halvey.

Immediately after finishing in Wilson’s, Thompson was on the road to Limerick as Shannon set him up with a groundsman’s job while he started training.

“A Laois man with half a Dublin accent from school, I had a steep learning curve that summer!” laughs Thompson.

He started with the club’s U20 side but was promoted to the senior team within months, joining fellow young guns Anthony Foley, Alan Quinlan and John Hayes in an exciting squad.

shannon-players-celebrate-division-one-title-141995 Shannon celebrate their first AIL title in 1995. Source: © INPHO/Billy Stickland

Shannon had endured a “wake-up call” in the ’92/93 season by nearly getting relegated from Division 1 of the AIL, meaning Thompson and co. were coming onboard at a time when the club was getting serious. Cork Con, Garryowen, and Young Munster had won the first three AIL titles after its launch in ’90/91 and Shannon wanted a piece of the cake.

“Outside of the Ireland squad, the club game back then was the pinnacle of Irish rugby,” says Thompson. “The provincial set-up was there, players were proud to play for their province, but it wasn’t the biggest thing for them. The biggest thing was to win the Munster Senior Cup and then slowly the AIL as it grew.

“I was really blessed to join Shannon at that time. The crowds were massive. We would play games against Young Munster and have 17,000 or 18,000 people at Thomond Park.”

The “astute” Brian O’Brien, who went on to become Ireland manager, occupied that same role with Shannon as they built towards their four-in-row, while Niall O’Donovan was the head coach before later going on to coach Munster and Ireland’s forwards.

“When I talk about my best coaches, I’d be putting Niallo number two,” says Thompson of O’Donovan, who is still Munster’s team manager today. “He was very direct, astute, very fair, a brilliant forwards coach. I’d go as far as to say the successes that Munster and Ireland had in his time, Niallo had a massive role in that.”

Cork man Ray Coughlan, a “brilliant guy” who coached Thompson at Ireland U21 level, was another clever addition as O’Donovan’s assistant, driving Shannon’s skill levels and improving their patterns of play.

Thompson recalls player meetings that set out Shannon’s stall ahead of their first AIL title in ’94/95 – when they won 10 games from 10 – and the three that followed.

First, fitness.

“We would have been one of the first clubs to do the extra training, not just the Tuesday and Thursday but another day in the week.

“It was all fitness on a Monday night out in UL with Dave Mahedy and he used to run the bollocks off us. We were a very fit team and that helped a lot.”

There was plenty of drinking back then, but Shannon had a counter-measure.

“After AIL games, we’d go out on the piss. We’d drink as much or more than most teams but the following morning, there was a compulsory fitness session on the back pitch at Thomond Park.

“There was no grass, it was basically mud. And we’d run the piss out of ourselves. Players would be puking. If you weren’t there on time or cut corners, there were severe punishments. It was almost like a recovery session and we’d then be ready for the Monday session.”

andrew-thompson-shannon-1531997 Thompson lines up a kick in 1997. Source: © Billy Stickland/INPHO

Many of them would head for the swimming pool on a Sunday evening afterwards, signs of their semi-professionalism.

Shannon agreed to be a more disciplined team too. Hard-edged and confrontational but not stupid in giving away penalties. And while their brilliant pack dominated the style of play, they also decided to “expand our game.” 

With Schmidt’s influence still strong, Thompson’s ambitious style was part of that growth, even if he learned harsh lessons in the school of hard knocks that was the AIL.

“I remember we were playing Young Munster in the rain and I stepped inside Ger Earls for a big break. I thought I was brilliant, I thought I’d keep doing that.

“But every single time after that, I’d get hit by six Young Munster guys and I’d have Peter Clohessy dancing all over my back. It was a big lesson for me.”

Thompson’s place-kicking quality was an important part of the success and he says Shannon were brilliant in that regard, bringing in now world-renowned Dave Alred to do coach Thompson, Pat Murray, Jim Galvin, and Billy O’Shea. There were classroom modules, video analysis, practical kicking drills, drop-kicks, kicking from hand.

“I soaked all of that right up, took my notes. After that session, my stats went up massively,” says Thompson, who kicked at above 90% for Shannon. “For an amateur club, they had the balls to go and pay him, he wasn’t cheap.”

As Shannon were winning those four titles, the sport was going professional. Ireland internationals like Galwey, Foley, and Halvey got full contracts with the IRFU, while the likes of Thompson, Quinlan, Hayes and Johnny Lacey – who had joined Shannon in 1997 – went onto semi-pro contracts.

Slowly but surely, the focus in Ireland shifted from the AIL to the provinces, all the more so as Ulster and then Munster made their mark in Europe.

Thompson played for Munster more than 20 times, including Heineken Cup games against Bourgoin when he started on one wing with Lacey on the other.

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Thompson has some regrets now about the failure to progress from that semi-pro deal. Having graduated from LIT with a quantity surveying degree, he took on job with the PKS firm working on Shannon Airport during the 1998/99 season.

“It ended up backfiring on me, it affected my performances with Munster even though I was still doing ok with Shannon. I ended up with a bit of burnout. It was a mistake, to be honest. I should have concentrated on rugby for a year or two.”

andrew-thompson-2381997 Thompson playing for Munster against Leinster in 1997. Source: © Billy Stickland/INPHO

His contact with Munster expired and Thompson decided on a “great adventure” in France with his girlfriend-at-the-time and now-wife, Sinead O’Loughlin, securing a contract with second division side Stade Montchaninois. 

The club’s owner passed away around Christmas time, however, and Thompson went unpaid for two months before his agent organised a move to then-Premiership club Bedford. Playing at 10 outside England’s Andy Gomarsall, Thompson loved his stint even though Bedford were relegated.

“That improved me a lot. I wanted to go back and show Munster I had improved in areas I hadn’t been as strong on, like defence. I was in good condition coming out of Bedford, I’d strengthened up and put on a good bit of weight.”

Munster boss Declan Kidney told him there was a final spot in his squad for Thompson and Kerryman Dermot O’Sullivan to fight it out for ahead of the 2000/01 campaign. Thompson had an excellent pre-season with Munster and played off the bench in a friendly against Gloucester but that was to be his final game for the province.

A week later, he broke his wrist in a Munster Senior Cup game with Shannon and O’Sullivan, who he stresses was an excellent player and quite possibly would have got the spot anyway, was registered to the Heineken Cup squad.

“I decided to focus on Shannon and my QS work because I was doing well in that,” says Thompson. “I could give Shannon a lot of attention. We had lost a lot of players after the four-in-a-row, so that opened up a whole new chapter for me. Myself and Johnny Lacey were two of the older players in the backline and Johnny scored a heap of tries.

“We had to change our game – we had a different style of rugby, a lot more open – in that second successful period. I really enjoyed that.”

Shannon won the AIL in 2001/02, before a three-in-a-row run, with Thompson mainly playing at out-half or in midfield in this second coming. At this stage, club rugby had changed and the provinces were what mattered most. The AIL started shifting towards what it is these days – a young player’s league. 

Thompson helped Shannon to another AIL crown in 2008/o9, the club’s most recent, and had hoped to play on until the age of 40 but a persistent back injury meant the final years of his career were “hit and miss” and he called it quits as a 37-year-old in 2011.

He and his young family have been living in Dubai for over five years now and will likely be there for another year or two before a possible return home.

brian-tuohy-and-andrew-thompson Brian Tuohy and Thompson celebrate the 2006 AIL title. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

Thompson admits that coaching is something that greatly appeals to him and he’s enjoyed doing kicking clinics in the past, having resisted chances to move into that world in favour of pursuing the success he has achieved in his real-life job.

He stays in touch with his brother-in-law, Fiach O’Loughlin, his former halfback partner in Shannon and now working with Munster, as well as others in the province and around the country. His connections from the AIL days are strong.

You get the sense that Thompson isn’t quite finished with rugby just yet. But whatever happens in the future, there’s no doubt that the man from Laois is one of the greats of AIL rugby and a Shannon legend.

“Shannon has been huge for me, it’s been my whole life really,” says Thompson. “I married my wife out of Shannon, her whole family are Shannon people through and through.

“I have friends for life in Shannon. I flew home for Axel’s funeral in 2016 and saw all of these people again. It’s just huge. Shannon is there for life.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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