How Munster rugby gave one fan a new lease of life
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“It sounds dramatic but Munster saved my life.”
The importance of sport sometimes goes beyond winning or losing. Niamh Barron’s passion for Munster Rugby has seen her go to countless games but it also helped her through some of her biggest challenges.
The Limerick woman recalls that rugby proved an unlikely saviour when she needed it most.
“In 2014, at the age of 35, I by chance discovered I had breast cancer,” Niamh told JOE. “I subsequently had a mastectomy and then radiotherapy.
“What kept me going, what kept me fighting, was my love of rugby and my love of Munster. I made it my business to miss as few games as possible when I was diagnosed and I kept that promise to myself.”
“It sounds dramatic but Munster saved my life. When you get cancer, it’s not just the physical you battle with. It’s the mental side of the disease. That day I was diagnosed, part of me died which I will never get back but through my love and passion for Munster the bigger part of me was reborn.”
Despite hailing from the rugby stronghold of Limerick, Niamh doesn’t come from a rugby dynasty or have any affiliation to a club.
“Munster is my club,” she explains. “I started supporting Munster back in 2007. It was a natural progression. I watched a few games on TV by accident and got hooked quite quickly. I love the game itself as it’s the ultimate team sport.
“Rugby, and more so Munster, have a unique ethos based on hard work, commitment, passion and ambition - values that can be carried into everyday life for everyone. So supporting them while also being from the province was a no brainer!”
Her dedication to Munster has seen her go to most home games and over 25 away trips in the last 10 years. With two children aged four and 14, she still manages to travel for matches.
“I have a great husband who is quite easy-going and let’s me get my way most of the time,” she adds. “It’s funny because a lot of people wouldn't think I have children, I go away so much.
“But as I said to one guy in the airport one day, ‘Would you be questioning me if I was a man?’ His words were ‘No girl, you're right. Got me there.’"
Niamh hit the headlines in recent years when she sold a signed jersey to fund an away trip to Marseille. She used the proceeds to travel to see Munster play Toulon in the Heineken Cup semi-final.
“It’s not cheap to go on away trips to Europe so any way I can get there, I will be there. My motto is ‘Where there's a will there's a way.’ It may sound strange but I would prefer to create memories on rugby trips then stare at a signed rugby jersey in a frame. Going away, supporting Munster, being the 16th man and meeting great friends means more to me.”
One of her favourite rugby memories is from the Clermont vs Munster match in December, 2014. It was a game that Munster lost but it still stands out as an amazing occasion.
“As a supporter, sometimes it’s not about what happens on the pitch but rather the comradery between supporters,” says Niamh. “A march and a phenomenal welcome was organised for the Munster supporters by Clermont fans. Both sets of supporters walked and sang their way from the main square to the Stade Marcel-Michelin before the match kicked off.
“What an atmosphere. What mutual respect both sets of fans had for each other. This is why I love rugby. I will never forget it. I have been to plenty of places around Europe supporting Munster and was proud to be a part of it despite Munster's loss.”
Of course, there are always highs and lows in sport and rugby is no different.
“My worst experience from a match point of view was losing to our nearest and dearest rivals, Leinster, in Croke Park in 2009. That was a long train journey home but, in saying that, being in Paris in October when Axel Foley tragically passed away was tough.
“Not because I knew him personally but there was a real profound sense of grief from all Munster supporters and in particular those who were in Paris at the time. It cemented, albeit for the wrong reason, that Munster supporters are unique and are special. We all gathered outside Racing 92's stadium and sang ‘The Fields of Athenry’ and ‘There is an Isle’ in his memory. It’s a trip I will not forget for a long time.”
— Racing 92 (@racing92) October 16, 2016
What makes rugby stand out for Niamh is the respect between opposing fans and the interaction they have before, during and after matches.
“Rugby for me is unique in the way both sets of supporters can integrate together and this is one of the many reasons I love it. Rugby [has given me] nothing if not great friends from all countries and all walks of life. It really does bring people together.”
Niamh is hopeful that the tragic loss of their head coach will drive Munster on. She says she is “quietly confident” that the Red Army can get out of their pool and reach the knock out stages in a tough European Rugby Champions Cup group.
“They have been galvanised by the tragic death of Anthony Foley but also have a great coaching team behind them. There have been a few astute signings too, none more so then Jaco Taute. [Peter] O’Mahony is back after a horrendous injury and [Tyler] Bleyendaal is proving very valuable at 10. Let’s put it this way - timing means everything. A lot of things are going Munster's way this season from a sporting point of view.”
Niamh is an ambassador for the Heineken Rugby Club, which has tracked down the most loyal and dedicated fans from around the world and highlighted their stories. These fans became the first members of the Heineken Rugby Club.
The club celebrates and rewards the real supporters who make the game what it is.
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