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Crossing the divide: What is it like to swap the blue jersey for a red one or to make the big switch from Limerick to Dublin?

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James Downey. Photo: Sportsfile

James Downey. Photo: Sportsfile

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James Downey. Photo: Sportsfile

For Tony Ward, it was the sound of silence that encapsulated the difference. During his glittering Munster career, the Ireland out-half found the hush that descended on the old Thomond Park a comfort as he lined up a kick, but when he returned as a Leinster player in his final season he found the lack of noise carried a more menacing feeling.

"When you're the home kicker, it feels like an advantage," he recalls. "As the away kicker I didn't know how to react."

The relationship between these two provinces has always been something of a sibling rivalry and like any family there are complications along the way. Whatever bitterness exists, there has always been room for players to make the move between the two dressing-rooms.

In Ward's era, employment or education were the primary factors behind switching.

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He joined Shay Deering in making the move south in his early 20s, while Willie Sexton and Jerry Holland, uncle to Johnny and father to Billy respectively, played for both provinces during that era when the derbies were less frequent but attracted big crowds as they were played in the lead-in to the Six Nations final trial.

In more recent times, opportunity has been the driving force behind players making the move.

In recent years, it's been IRFU policy to try and shift players from one province to another to clear positional bottlenecks, but 15 years ago it was a little more ad hoc.

Handful

In 2006, James Downey found himself without a club after stints with Leinster and Connacht so he picked up the phone to Declan Kidney and offered to train for free.

He earned a contract and his handful of games in red set him up for successful stints in Italy and England before he returned to Thomond Park as a starter.

"For me, it was purely business. I needed a job. I didn't have a contract," Downey recalls. "They let me come down, ultimately I got a contract.

"When I was at Northampton I had dalliances with Leinster about coming back. I'd met (Michael) Cheika, there were options but I said I'd stay where I was.

"Munster was a natural fit (in 2012). (Lifeimi) Mafi was leaving, whereas Leinster was just going to the same situation. My dad is from Limerick, I've cousins in Cork and Limerick so there's a family tie."

Like Downey, who was faced with Gordon D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll and David Quinlan ahead of him in the pecking order, Stephen Keogh had stiff competition for a back-row slot in Munster when he received a call from an unknown number in 2006.

"Michael Cheika asked me to come up and have a chat with him and I did," he remembers. "It was a difficult decision. I'm from Limerick and all of my family is too, I probably didn't know much else at that stage in my life. It was based purely on rugby opportunities.

"The thing about rugby is you're essentially playing with your friends, so once I was happy they were happy.

"People were disappointed I decided to go, I'm sure some might have been happy! To be honest, the lads in Munster were nothing but supportive."

Keogh made the move in 2006; a year later Niall Ronan moved the other way. Out of contract at his home province, he was leaning towards giving Gaelic football a shot with his native Meath when Declan Kidney got in touch.

"By chance, Keith Gleeson got injured and I played against Edinburgh and was man of the match live on RTÉ. The following week I signed for Munster.

"That's how quick it happened, from contemplating trying to get on the Meath team I signed for Munster five days later," he says.

"Munster were European champions, it was an incredible experience.

"The World Cup was on the first year, I played in the back-row with Axel (Anthony Foley) and Alan Quinlan who weren't at the World Cup that year. It gave me great standing within the squad as well.

"I love Munster, it's a home from home for me. I come from a GAA background, so I fit in.

"They looked after my family well ... I'd seven of my best years there."

Culturally, Ronan - who remains grateful to Leinster for his initial opportunity - found there to be big differences between the dressing-rooms.

"When you go down the country, down the south it's more of a parish mentality," he explains.

"It was going into the unknown, but the welcome the lads gave me was incredible.

"I remember Declan Kidney saying you have to earn your stripes here and you have to get respect from your peers, not me. Train hard, play well and buy into the culture.

"I don't know what other people thought of me coming down there, but I was willing to work hard."

Buying in was key. This week on the 'Rugby Weekly' podcast, Bernard Jackman singled Keogh and Hogan out for the bite they brought to training when they crossed the divide.

"Leinster had to find their own way, Munster already knew their own way," he says.

"Leinster was definitely different, but it wasn't to do with the people - it was to do with the fact they weren't winning consistently.

"So, until you win with a team I feel you don't have that bond. The first year, a lot of people had left and others had been let go.

"It took a year or two to get a settled squad. It took that couple of years and then that's how friendships grow.

Towards the end, the squads were the same. Different accents, but the same quality people."

Within the dressing-room, there is an acceptance that once you buy in and work hard it doesn't matter where you're from.

On the pitch, however, there was always the odd reminder.

"The first game back was in Thomond Park, we were beaten convincingly and the Munster lads were quiet because they were winning," Keogh recalls. "We beat them down in Musgrave Park in 2008, there was a few verbals coming across from certain players.

"There was hatred on the field, it was so competitive. Munster were so competitive and Leinster just wanted to beat them so badly and we did eventually.

"It was a long road from 2005 to 2009. Munster were such a good team, the dominant side in Irish rugby. It was a big ask."

Downey always felt there was an extra edge when he faced his home province.

"Because I'm from Dublin and Leinster was my home province it meant so much," he says.

"I can't speak for other players, but it was always in the back of my mind.

"The lads from Munster originally would have had chips on their shoulders too, I'm sure some Leinster lads do as well. There's no love lost."

Despite that, the dressing-room was always open to players who would make the switch and buy in fully.

"Felix (Jones) was a great example. When Rob Penney was there we did an exercise around 'what is a Munster man?' and the fella driving the whole thing was Felix," Downey recalls.

"It was massive that the more experienced lads like Paulie, RO'G or Donncha were happy and weren't saying, 'This is a Dublin lad standing up there'."

Tonight, only Kildare native Tadhg Beirne in red and Limerick's Seán Cronin in blue will have that feeling. James Ryan did wear a Munster jersey once in 2017, but that was a quirk of fate rather than anything lasting.

Generation

Provincial movement is here to stay. Now an agent at Esportif, Downey says the current generation are open to the idea of making the leap.

"It's become the norm," he says. "Back then, you either played for your province or you didn't play.

"You stopped. Now, it's more acceptable - it's where is there a better chance to play, where do they see their career progressing.

"It is business now and if a player is let go it's certainly not personal. The player has to look after himself."

Once they do, people around them find a way of getting their heads around it.

"I remember going to Agen and my father, my uncle and their best friend in Johnny Glynn from Limerick all came over," Keogh recalls.

"Three Munster men there to support Leinster and support me.

"My friends? Nah. They were still Munster through and through."

In the pro game, the boundaries are more fluid. Downey sees tonight as a no-lose game while Ronan is fully behind the men in red.

Keogh, now back in Limerick, is being diplomatic when asked who he'll be cheering for.

"I couldn't tell you that, it depends who I'm talking to" he says with a glint in his eye, before outlining the reasons why a Munster win would be good for Irish rugby.

All three men are looking forward to it. The rivalry is alive and well, despite the blurring of the lines.

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