Shannon fury over washouts at Thomond

 

An element of high farce continues to surround the state of the Thomond Park pitch, leaving the AIB league champions Shannon in a state of high dudgeon. Their hopes of belatedly staging their first home league game of the season against Buccaneers today are receding with each passing drop of rain.

As the overnight forecast was for more heavy rain, the prognosis is poor, despite some trojan work over the last couple of days with the help of a "water hog" in removing surface water. The pitch will be inspected at 9.0 this morning, but the chances of the game being given the go ahead are at best 50-50, according to sources.

As the named alternative venue, Coonagh, has already been declared unplayable, this would mean the game will have to be postponed. As Shannon have one re-arranged fixture at home to Garryowen pencilled in for the free Saturday at the end of the month, a fixture pile-up is mounting already.

In mitigation, the Munster region has suffered the worst of the holiday rains, and the Richmond-UCD and Highfield-Monkstown games in Division Three have already been cancelled.

The problem, though, is liable to get worse before it gets better, as Bohemians are to play host to a Limerick derby with Richmond next Saturday, after which Shannon, theoretically, are due to have three games at Thomond Park in succession. The talk is of moving the games 23 miles away to Clanwilliam in Tipperary, which should at least facilitate Alan Quinlan's fan club.

Thus far, to all intents and purposes, the famed Limerick rugby public have been starved of topflight rugby. Dooradoyle has staged two interpros, and two first division games, as have Young Munster. And that's it. For this, someone in the IRFU should for once stand up and accept some accountability.

Having bought the ground from the Munster Branch and resodded the pitch during the close season, the IRFU in their wisdom felt compelled to give themselves a public congratulatory pat on the back last September for their investment of £30,000 "in completely redeveloping the main pitch at Thomond Park". Presumably that figure has risen since then.

It's worth repeating some of last September's IRFU missive. "The IRFU is happy to confirm that the first phase of the redevelopment of the main pitch at Thomond Park is progressing on schedule, and at this stage it is anticipated that the first match to be played on the new pitch will be the Munster v Perpignan fixture on October 31st, in the European Cup."

It went on. "It is also anticipated that the main pitch will be available for a full programme of AIB League fixtures involving the two tenant clubs at Thomond Park, Shannon and Bohemians, subject of course to appropriate weather conditions prevailing at the time of matches." What a howl.

Even then Limerick sources doubted whether the pitch would be ready for the celebrated October 31st anniversary fixture, and that target increasingly looks like a bad joke as well as a fantasy (the match was played in Cork). Come January 1999, and Thomond Park has still to stage a game. So disappointed were Bohemians with the state of the surface two weeks ago that they decided to move their Division Two match with Highfield to Annacotty.

Apparently, the main Thomond Park pitch resembles a building site and the resodded pitch has an acute drainage problem. Local expertise has not been utilised and both the Munster Branch, privately, and Shannon, publicly, are livid.

"The club is up in arms," admitted coach Pat Murray. "From the squad's point of view, we had some great training sessions over Christmas and it's just so, so frustrating.

"It's a disgrace what they've done to the pitch. You'd wonder about the money they've put in to it and how wisely it's been spent. It was never a great pitch, but 12 months ago it was the only pitch in the area that was playable. They've absolutely destroyed it and it's depressing to walk it now."

Were Thomond Park to be deemed unplayable yet again, admittedly it may not be the only pitch to fall into that category. Pitch inspections will be carried out at a number of venues as the league resumes in a competition which is being dogged by disruptions and more upheavals guaranteed by the complete cancellation of all games in Ulster next weekend.

A feature of today's first division programme is that the three unbeaten sides are all playing away from home in Dublin, at Terenure (who host leaders Lansdowne), St Mary's (who entertain Garryowen) and Clontarf (who have Ballymena to Castle Avenue). The first venue seems the one most at risk from the weather.

After four wins in five, London Irish again make minimum change to a stable squad for this afternoon's English Premiership game against Newcastle at Sunbury. Shoulder injury victim Nick Burrows is replaced at centre by Robert Todd.

Newcastle are confident scrumhalf Gary Armstrong will have made a swift recovery from the broken thumb he received two weeks ago and should replace Hall Charlton.