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'From the kick-off, they decided to start a schemozzle. That suited us'

Ger Earls was a key part of Young Munster’s AIL success in 1993 after joining from Thomond.

Updated May 16th 2020, 12:20 PM

GER EARLS WAS still only 21 when Young Munster boss Tony Grant called over to ask would he come out to training in Greenfields.

Earls is known around Limerick and further afield as the best player never to play for Ireland, but back then in 1989 he was a young fella playing for Thomond.

It was a tough decision. Leaving his home club was a big deal. 

Thomond RFC were one of the best junior clubs around, having just won their fifth Junior Cup, but Earls was too good not to be playing senior rugby. So, he nodded to Grant and said he’d give it a go with Young Munster, himself and fellow Thomond man Ger Copley switching at the same time.

Just over three years later, Earls and ‘the Cookies’ were All-Ireland champions as they marched to the club’s first and only title in the glory days of 1993.

young-munster-celebrate-1993 Ger Clohessy lifts the AIL trophy in 1993 as Earls [second from right] and co. celebrate. Source: © Billy Stickland/INPHO

“You were never asked to go and actually play with one of the senior clubs, you were only asked to go up and train with them,” recalls Earls, whose son Keith plays for Munster and Ireland.

“They wanted to see what you were like. The reason I left Thomond was to play senior rugby. Thomond were a great club for myself and Keith, that’s where it all started.”

Earls went along to ‘Munsters’ training one November night, being impressed by the sheer size of forwards like Peter Clohessy, and he was thrown straight into action against Shannon that weekend. By the following April, they’d won the club’s sixth Munster Senior Cup, a massive competition at the time.

Something was brewing in Tom Clifford Park and the launch of the All-Ireland League for the 1990/91 season was well-timed for their rise.

Earls recalls a narrow win against Highfield in front of a massive crowd down in Cork meaning Munsters qualified for the first-ever AIL, with a drop-goal from Michael Benson getting them over the line.

“If we hadn’t won that game, god knows where would we be.”

The Cookies went into Division 2 of the AIL, got promoted at the first time of asking, then settled themselves in Division 1 for the ’91/92 season as Garryowen became the first Limerick club to win the title, following Cork Con’s success in the inaugural campaign.

Munsters were ready to give it a rattle in ’92/93, with the likes of Ger and Peter Clohessy, John ‘Paco’ Fitzgerald, and lock pair Peter Meehan and Ray Ryan – “monsters of men” – giving a steely edge up front, where Earls had established himself at openside flanker and was among those in the Cookies’ pack who also played for the Munster provincial team.

The Clohessys, Earls, and scrum-half Derek Tobin all started for Munster in 1992 when they beat world champions Australia 22-19 in Cork.

The Young Munster pack became respected, sometimes even feared, in the AIL.

ger-earls Earls [7] and Young Munster in action against Shannon in 1992. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It was different then,” says Earls of the physicality of the Munsters forwards. “Lads were working hard outside rugby, they were builders, dockers, things like that. They were physically strong men.

“Nowadays lads are going to the gym trying to get that but I don’t think it’s the same.”

Grant, who Earls worked for as a carpet-layer at the time, pushed them hard.

“He was a real disciplinarian. His training was so intense it was unbelievable.

“We used to be killing each other. He’d always have us up against the seconds and there would be a bit of bitterness between the firsts and seconds. We used to batter the shit out of each other week in, week out. It was great.”

Club rugby at that stage was a far bigger draw than the provincial game. Massive crowds of well over 10,000 people were the norm for the Limerick derbies. Earls loved how the Cookies fans followed them everywhere, drinking pints with the team after games.

The AIL was still a straight league format without play-offs back then and Munsters got on a roll. Big away wins against Shannon in Thomond Park and then Cork Con at Temple Hill on a filthy day were crucial on the way to the title.

“That was a total forwards game against Con but Francis Brosnahan, who played in the centre for us, is always saying that he thinks it was the first time we left the ball out to the backs and Niall Mc [another Thomond man, Niall McNamara] scored the try.

“That might have been the first try the backs scored that year!”

A home win over Garryowen followed, with the scrum earning a penalty try, and Munsters were looking at a possible title heading into their last game of the AIL campaign.

fans-look-on-during-the-game The crowd at a Young Munster match in 1993. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The issue was that the they had to travel to face high-flying St Mary’s College RFC, who only needed a draw to secure the trophy.

Templeville, where Mary’s usually played, was too small to host the game so it was moved to Lansdowne Road, which the Cookies welcomed. Down in Limerick, the build-up had a giddy edge to it.

“Tony Mc kept us away from everything, to be fair,” says Earls. The Munsters coach looked for his players to channel the spirit of the 1928 Bateman Cup final win, the club’s only previous All-Ireland trophy.

“He wouldn’t let the papers in for interviews or anything. He was very good like that.

“Coming through town all that week, you could feel the buzz building. To be fair to the other Limerick clubs they supported us.”

A crowd of over 17,000 turned up at Lansdowne Road on Saturday 13 February 1993 for what was essentially a final.

Young Munster v St Mary’s, 1993: Ger McNamara; Niall McNamara, Noel O’Meara, Francis Brosnahan, James McNamara; Aidan O’Halloran, Derek Tobin; John Fitzgerald, Mark Fitzgerald, Peter Clohessy; Ray Ryan, Peter Meehan; Ger Clohessy, Ger Earls, Declan Edwards. Replacements: Derek Mullane, Michael Benson.

Munsters captain Ger Clohessy had been struggling with an injury leading into the game but did his best to play through it, only to be forced off early on – but not before the first proper dust-up.

“From the first kick-off, they decided they wanted to start a schemozzle,” recalls Earls. “That suited us down to the ground. I’m not saying we were always into that kind of stuff, but we had a big bust-up and sorted each other out.

“As Ger says, he stuck around for the fight!”

Former All Blacks trialist Brent Pope was the key man for Mary’s, a brilliant player at number eight. Earls and inside centre Brosnahan were tasked with keeping him quiet.

“Brent would have his sleeves cut up around his shoulders, he was a massive man. He was their main player and with the position I was in, I was always going to come into contact with him.

“Brosy was a great defender so we decided to try and team up. Unfortunately for Brosy, it didn’t work out for him.”

Earls is talking about Brosnahan being laid out by a big punch from Pope, who was sent off for the blow that ended the Cookies’ centre’s game.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 11.49.22 A Limerick leader poster of the winning team. Source: Limerick Leader

“I still think to this day, when Brent swung that dig it was for me,” says Earls. “I was quick enough to duck but Brosi got it straight into the jaw.

“Getting a dig off Brent Pope? No thanks!”

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Munsters were already 6-3 up when Pope was red-carded and Earls’ famous try helped them to extend their lead. A brilliant intercept score, Earls showed the kind of pace that his son has also demonstrated in his career to glide home from inside his own half.

Earls explains the try as “just something that happened” and shows his humble side in pushing credit towards Munsters’ nerveless out-half Aidan O’Halloran – a fellow Thomond man – whose kicking was instrumental on the day, particularly in how he nailed the winning penalty from 40 metres out, against the wind, after Mary’s had managed to level the game at 14-14.

“People talk about the try but everyone forgets the two drop-goals and two penalties that Aidan got,” says Earls.

“Them two drop-goals, I’ve never seen two like it. It’s never really mentioned in the same way, which I don’t think is fair. It’s always the try, the try.

“Aidan was only young. He’s an out-and-out footballer, great at soccer and Gaelic football. There should be more celebration of his kicks.”

Mary’s had a late chance to level the game from the tee but missed, sparking wild celebrations from the massive crowd that had travelled from Limerick, the club song ‘Beautiful Munsters’ ringing out around Lansdowne Road. Fittingly, it was Young Munster man Charlie Quaid, IRFU president at the time, who presented the trophy.

The party continued all the way home, throughout Sunday and on into Monday.

“It’s still a bit of a blur, to be honest,” says Earls with a laugh. But he does clearly remember every moment on the open-top bus that club sponsors Bus Eireann organised for the champions on the Monday, bringing them around Limerick.

“A lot of fellas were hesitant to get on,” says Earls, “but the crowds that turned up all day…”

Source: George Lee/YouTube

The bus brought them from pub to pub, but also past many of the places that meant most to the players. At one stage, they drove up from Thomondgate through Moyross to Thomond’s grounds as a nod to where Earls, O’Halloran, Copley and McNamara had originally played.

The party stopped for the Munster Senior Cup two weeks later but then continued on into the summer, when the Cookies were still being invited into other clubs to recognise their achievement. The hosts would put on a spread, a few pints, songs would be sung. 

Earls remembers it all fondly but he has regrets about what happened next, or rather what didn’t happen. Munsters have yet to win an AIL since, while they had to wait until 2010 to lift the Munster Senior Cup again. Earls reckons they should have pushed on after ’93.

“Some of the players were getting older at that stage but we could have kicked on and won three or four AILs.”

As for his own playing career, Earls sometimes wonders what might have been.

He was one of the best players in the country in the ’90s and had an Ireland trial in ’92 after Munster’s win over Australia. He started the trial in the Possibles team and scored a try, then switched to the Probables at half-time and scored another try.

Yet, somehow, he never got called up for the Ireland debut that so many people feel he deserved. Some say the decisions were based on him being a Moyross man, because there was no doubt Earls had the quality.

“The one thing I always wanted to do was play for Ireland, that’s every young fella’s ambition,” says Earls. “Whether through my own fault or anyone else’s fault, it didn’t happen and that’s probably my one regret.

“I don’t get too carried away or upset by it. I meet fellas in the local and they say I should have played for Ireland, but I just say, ‘Well, the young fella got enough for the two of us so it’s grand.’”

the-young-munster-team-celebrate-1993 Munsters fans celebrate in '93. Source: ©INPHO

Earls didn’t get the chance to taste semi-professional rugby with Munster either, being overlooked for a part-time contact with the province in 1995 and falling out with Declan Kidney over his decision. Happily, that bridge was mended years later.

Earls reckons he could have embraced the changes in the sport better, but the timing of rugby lurching towards professionalism wasn’t great. Earls was a working man, first and foremost.

“Back in the ’90s when I was playing, it was work or rugby. Everything going part-time probably came at the wrong time for me.”

But Earls loved his Young Munster days. Having initially planned on trying senior rugby out for a season, he stayed with the club for over 10 years before eventually returning to Thomond when they were promoted into the AIL in 2000. 

By then in his 30s, Earls was still a class act as player-coach and helped his home club to the Division 3 title in 2001.

Again, he had planned on playing only for a season but kept at it until he was 36, which gave him the opportunity to play alongside Keith once, when the younger Earls had just left school.

“Of course, Keith had to get into a fight in that match, which put me in an awkward spot!” says Ger with a laugh.

Ger’s father – who was a docker, “a working man” – hadn’t played rugby and instead was a champion pitch and putt player in his youth, but Earls’ mother’s family had a rugby background.

Ger recalls Thomond’s John Bromell cycling around Kileely on his high nelly, signing players up. Earls’ brothers opted for football with Ballynanty Rovers, but he headed for Shelbourne Park, where Thomond used to train.

Tall and skinny as a teenager, Earls took to the game naturally but says his Thomond coach from U16s to U20s, Sean McInerney, had a big influence.

ger-earls-and-mick-o-driscoll-2912000 Earls during his final season with Young Munster. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“You’d go training and he’d check your breath to see if you were smoking or drinking. If you were, you were out the door. He brought some discipline to it.

“Sean showed us that we really had to prepare for games and do the extra bits, that extra sprinting or whatever it was.”

Earls himself is doing his best to give back now as head coach of junior club Newcastle West, where he coaches alongside Aidan O’Halloran.

“We’re trying to pass down a bit. We don’t get carried away with the video sessions and all of that. We train hard. Newcastle West are a great club, they have their finger on the pulse.”

They had been enjoying a strong season until the shutdown of rugby and Earls hopes they can pick up where they left off when the sport resumes. 

He still sometimes struggles to watch Keith play the brutally-physical professional sport, which is so different to the game Ger was part of. It all seems too regimented to him, a player who was tough and also had great instincts and decision-making skills.

But rugby has been so much of life for Earls and his family. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“Rugby gives you discipline to take into your life and how you conduct yourself as a person. That’s the biggest thing I take out of it… you wouldn’t be talking down to people, you learn to conduct yourself in the right way.

“I would have loved to have a crack off the professional game and god knows I would have loved to play for Ireland. It didn’t happen but I do owe rugby an awful lot.”

- This article was updated at 2.34pm to correct ‘Francis Brosnihan’ to ‘Francis Brosnahan’.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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