Wanderers and Lansdowne club together for welcome return to action

Famed old rivals back in competitive action at HQ for Leinster Senior Cub clash

 Lansdowne jerseys laid out  on hangers under the   canopy  with the canvas awning as the club returns to  action against Wanderers in the Leinster Senior Cup. Gear bags are scattered beneath.

Lansdowne jerseys laid out on hangers under the canopy with the canvas awning as the club returns to action against Wanderers in the Leinster Senior Cup. Gear bags are scattered beneath.

 

A couple of minutes after six o’clock in the evening the car park at Merrion Road was almost full, that in itself the first anomaly on this match day.

Covid-19 effectively removed amateur sport in Ireland from the calendar for the past 16 months. Club rugby wasn’t and isn’t immune as the pandemic continues to stalk the community.

On the pitch nearest the clubhouse, the Wanderers Under-20 team is going through some training drills but it lacks the intensity and accuracy of a pre-game warm-up. They have received the news that the match against Bective Rangers has been cancelled at the 11th hour because of a Covid-19 issue with the visitors.

A consolation is that they’ll be able to watch the Wanderers firsts as they host their younger sibling and co-tenants Lansdowne at the Aviva Stadium in a first round Leinster Senior Cup match.

It is 12 years since the two teams last met and on this occasion it’s in a competition in which Lansdowne are pre-eminent in terms of the roll of honour with 28 wins and Wanderers third on 13.

The first thing that catches the eye is the rail of Lansdowne jerseys on hangers under the pop-up gazebo or canopy depending on how you’d like to classify the four-legged structure with the canvas awning. Gear bags are scattered beneath. This is the temporary dressing room.

Around the corner, there is a similar layout, the only difference is that the Wanderers jerseys and gear are housed in a gazebo with the Australian rugby team’s Wallaby logo on it, a souvenir from the 1990s when the Antipodeans trained at Merrion Road.

The clubhouse dressing rooms are off limits to the players and coaches, the only access permitted to that group is to use the toilets. There are no showering facilities. When the match finishes, players are expected to jump into cars or on bikes and head off.

There are fewer constraints for the spectators, pints available from the clubhouse while outside burgers, chicken and sausages with the usual accoutrements and condiments are on offer for a fiver or less, depending on choice.

Masks must be worn indoors and there is a strict access and egress routing but clubhouse manager Fergus Moriarty appears permanently exasperated, shooing the errant, those that take wrong turns and fail to appreciate the guidelines and then in getting to grips with a misbehaving card machine. He ensures that everything is done correctly.

Hardcore supporters

The projected weather should have deterred all but the hardcore supporters from both clubs but the crowd of 199.50 – there was a baby in a pram present – that defied the forecast were handsomely rewarded. It’s quite a while since Wanderers, now in AIL Division 2B, had that sort of audience, or Lansdowne in Division 1A for that matter.

A casual vox pop unearths a consensus; people are keen to support the clubs, delighted that the sport is again available to all, everyone hoping that the pandemic can be kept at arm’s length. The challenge is evidenced by the fact that a Schools Under-18 interpro between Leinster and Munster due to take place over the weekend had to be rescheduled due to Covid.

Financially the clubs need the game to breathe again. Wanderers are currently fundraising through members, donors and endowments to enable the construction of new facilities, clubhouse, pitches, a 600-metre track not only for its constituents but also the community; the Down Syndrome Centre will have a facility in the clubhouse while the pitches will be made available to local schools like St Christopher’s, Haddington Road.

Referee John Carvill finds a place for his bag underneath a trestle table that wasn’t required by the videographer. It’s been 20 months since he last presided over a match, taking the opportunity presented by the pandemic to have ankle surgery.

He’s fit and well and does an excellent job considering he, along with his assistant referees, have several new laws – the 50:22 kick, in-goal dropout and one person latch to highlight three – to add to the existing governance of matches. The near touchline which houses the majority of the spectators is roped off, as is a walkway for the players from the clubhouse to the pitch.

Both sides are missing players due to holidays, some like Greg McGrath, Martin Mulhall and Tadhg McElroy as Lansdowne’s director of rugby Stephen Rooney explained, have opted to have a(nother) crack at the professional game. It doesn’t diminish the occasion. There are some excellent young players on display, not least the visitors’ right wing Sean Galvin.

Wanderers too are minus several faces familiar to regular match-goers but, as head coach and former Leinster and Saracens player Eoin Sheriff says, playing against that calibre of opposition “is worth 10 matches against teams that are our level”. One eye is already on the start of the All Ireland Leagues in early October.

Lansdowne won the match 27-3 but the overwhelming gratification for most present was that the sights and sounds of club rugby were restored and for a couple of hours everything seemed, well, normal.

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