Hometown hero Keith Earls received one of the biggest cheers of the night at Munster’s Homecoming event at Thomond Park, following their BKT United Rugby Championship title win.
It has been a severely injury-disrupted season for Earls, with a hamstring injury initially keeping him out for three months before a calf problem meant he missed Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning campaign.
A groin injury spoiled his return for Munster during their April trip to South Africa, but a speedy recovery saw him play the full 80 minutes against Leinster before a late cameo in Saturday’s final victory over the DHL Stormers.
Earls was part of the Munster squad that last won silverware back in 2011, and received a rousing reception when announced to the 10,000-strong crowd at the sold-out Homecoming.
Always held in deep affection by the Munster faithful, the Moyross man, who lifted the URC trophy alongside captain Peter O’Mahony in Cape Town, spoke about what it meant to bring home the cup to the fans at Thomond Park.
“It’s the best feeling ever. There’s no better feeling than winning with Munster. It is incredible,” he said, reflecting on the province’s fourth league crown since the 2002/03 season.
“I know ROG (Ronan O’Gara) has had his success over the past week (with La Rochelle), but I spent many a time kicking with ROG, and him calling me ‘Scobie’ back then.
“(Winning the URC) is a complete dream come true. Getting over the wall here after school every day, kicking the ball around and then getting to lift the trophy here with the lads in front of thousands of fans. It’s brilliant. Magic.”
The province’s Limerick fortress was bathed in glorious sunshine as the victorious players and coaches were given a rapturous welcome home. Their arrival also saw the Cranberries’ ‘Zombie’ – a real team anthem in the past year – played over the PA system.
Given his close ties to Thomond Park and the local area, Earls admitted: “It’s a dream come true (to be back here as champions). I grew up 500 metres from here over the wall into Ballynanty and into Moyross.
“I don’t really care about the medals and the trophy, it’s all about the province of Munster. We are delighted to do it for them (the fans), it has been a long time.”
Earls (35), O’Mahony (33), Stephen Archer (35) and Conor Murray (34) are the quartet that provide the link back to Munster’s league-winning squad of 12 years ago. Current defence coach Denis Leamy also played back then.
To repeat the feat alongside some of the province’s longest serving players – prop Archer is five appearances short of equalling Donncha O’Callaghan’s all-time Munster caps record of 268 – made it all the more special for the 2009 British & Irish Lion.
“It has been a long time, twelve years. It is a privilege to share the pitch with them,” added Earls, who had caused great excitement by bringing the URC cup to his daughters’ school, Milford National School in Castletroy, earlier in the day.
“I know some of the lads cannot be here (at the Homecoming), Conor Murray is getting married next week. He’s under savage pressure! We’ll enjoy it.”
It is unclear if the URC decider might have seen Earls play his last game for Munster. Last year he extended his contract up until the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup. He is due to turn 36 during the pool stages, at the beginning of October.
While undoubtedly having ambitions to play at a third World Cup for Ireland, he is unsure if the 19-14 triumph over the Stormers will turn out to be his final appearance in Munster red.
When asked about it by reporters in Limerick last night, he said: “Who knows, who knows? I’d like to have a good pre-season and then I’ll make a decision.”
It was a busy first day back home for the newly-crowned URC champions as they had time to continue the celebrations with family and friends, before attending a ceremony hosted by Limerick Mayor Francis Foley at City Hall.
Fans gathered at Thomond from 4.30pm for the arrival of Graham Rowntree’s men, who emerged from the tunnel at 7pm. Two hours later they were still signing autographs and posing for photographs before the event wrapped up with a special rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’.