At this halfway point in the 2013-14 season it is very heartening to reflect on a most satisfying first half and look to the remainder of the season with a further sense of optimism.
The Heavens above the Aviva Stadium will long echo to the dramatics of the Ireland - New Zealand game. And while we greatly lament last minute defeat, it is with a great confidence that we can take the positive elements of the game and view them as an encouraging omen for what awaits a re-energised Irish team in the upcoming RBS Six Nations championship.
You can sense an excited buzz of expectation amongst Ireland's faithful followers. Demand for match tickets guarantees that Joe Schmidt's team will not be lacking in support. Sell-out attendances seem guaranteed for our home games with Scotland, Wales and Italy.
Interest is also mounting for the Ireland women's team defence of their Grand Slam title; and we also have reason to await with eager anticipation the determined challenge of our Provincial teams in the Heineken Cup and Rabo Direct Pro 12 league.
All the while, of course, there will be a hive of activity throughout our clubs. Our premier inter-club competition, the Ulster Bank League, will be of added interest as it builds to its gripping title-winning and promotion and relegation climax. There will also be lots of appeal and activity around the myriad other club, third-level, women's and schools' competitions.
It all amounts to a hectic 2014 rugby calendar and I pay tribute to all you volunteers across our clubs, Branches and Union for the invaluable contribution you all make to the success of our game. It represents a complementary relationship that serves Irish rugby so well.
e-zine Clubhouse newsletter
In that sense of togetherness, I believe the introduction this month of the IRFU's e-zine "Clubhouse'' newsletter will further reinforce the connection between the Union and its clubs.
Each month it will cover the latest developments affecting the Club game, including committee decisions, games development, health and safety initiatives and a range of other topics as they happen across the whole spectrum of Irish rugby and that we hope will be of interest to all club officials, volunteers, players and supporters.
"Coming home'' to Suttonians
As I continue my travels to a host of club occasions, matches and rugby events around the country, I am humbled by the welcome being accorded to me as President of the IRFU and in accepting President Mark Shatwell's invitation to the annual Suttonians dinner it was a case of "coming home'' as I had the pleasure of playing for the club back in the 1970s.
Although I am principally associated with Longford RFC, I greatly treasure my playing days with Suttonians, when such characters as Donagh McHenry, Noel Egan, Robert Hogg, the late Mick Murray and so many others, added to the enjoyment.
I well recall that a highlight in those halcyon times was the bi-ennial weekend trip to Corstorphine RFC in Scotland ---- but thankfully rugby tour's long standing code of honour preserves us all from relating the incriminating details!
Something of which I can comment is that Suttonians can be proud of its contribution to Leinster and Irish rugby. The club provides a wonderful community based rugby facility and on the administrative side of things I pay tribute to Jim Dowling, club rep on the Leinster Branch, and of course, to stalwart member Rory Barry Duke and the contribution he made, culminating in being elected President of the Leinster Branch in 2006-07.
Monkstown celebrate 130 years
I also felt very much at home at Monkstown's very enjoyable 130th anniversary dinner, as I cherish many years visiting Sydney Parade and forming great friendships.
When I think of Monkstown the names of such stalwarts as current President Gerry Hegarty, Ken Mills, Brian Brady, the Byrne brothers, Harry and the late Blue and Pat; along with so many other great pillars and servants as the late Donie Goggin and Mossy Corcoran, the Counihan family…the Ganleys….Ian Condon…Billy Meagan…Paul Walsh…..Neil Harper of course, and that long serving other rock of the club - Gary Coughlan.
In my speech, I made heart-felt reference to the redoubtable Ken Mills. For me he symbolises all that is best about the club.
He is a man to whom I am greatly indebted for the guidance he gave me when we were on the Leinster Branch committee many years ago. I thank him and wish him well.
Mullingar's Gathering…Arkle…and Joe Schmidt
In another sense, my visit to Mullingar's fabulous "Gathering'' get-together, hosted by club President Mick Lambe, was also very poignant. On a night of great nostalgia I recalled - to the surprise of many - that I actually played for the club on many an occasion in the 1960s - even though I was not a member!
That was all to do with the persuasive ways of my long standing friend and the club's great mainstay - Tom Brady, who often twisted my arm to fill in when the team was short on a Sunday, even though I had played the previous day with Suttonians.
It was a period when the club grounds were based at the old Mullingar racetrack which was famous for the fact that the great Arkle ran his first ever race there, in 1961.
But I like to think that the Mullingar rugby team - and its mystery guest player at full back - also made a mark; even if we did not go on to match the achievements of the mighty Arkle!
I am, of course, greatly indebted to the Midlands Area, where I was a member of the Committee for 19 years, for the springboard it provided me in my administrative career. It enabled me to move onwards as Longford's rep, first to the Leinster Branch and then the Union itself. How proud I was therefore, to be honoured as IRFU President earlier this season at the inaugural Midlands Area rugby Awards dinner.
I was delighted to share the stage with fellow award winners from Mullingar in Anthony McGivney, Conor O'Brien, Andrew Purcell and Niall Hannon, who were all capped by the Irish Youths and Leinster last season……. and also club member, Brendan Leahy for his work as Chairman of the Leinster Youths and Chairman of the IRFU Minis committee.
It is also to Mullingar's credit that they currently have two young up and coming players, Conor Gilsenan and Mark Flanagan, with the Leinster Academy.
Of course another feather in Mullingar's cap is that our National team coach Joe Schmidt cut his teeth with them as a player-coach in the early 1990's. His presence on the night emphasised the great relationship he still enjoys with the club.....and since the Gathering dinner fell just a few days after the near miss against the All Blacks, the Mullingar lads boasted that the seeds of that great performance were sewn and the plot hatched in Mullingar rugby club all those years ago!
North Kildare RFC set multi-sports example
I wondered when I was being made a presentation by the cricket section of North Kildare RFC if the club holds a record for the most sports played under its umbrella? It offers the outlet of rugby, cricket, hockey, tennis, squash and soon to be introduced bowls! I am fully in favour of rugby sharing with other sports and I see this as a trend in the future.
In accepting the presentation from Roger Satchwell, the cricket section President, I recalled the strong links that exist between both codes.
Amateur rugby still provides the opportunity for players to trade their muddied jerseys and knicks of winter for willow and white flannels of summer, although specialisation at the top end has probably put an end to an older tradition of it being possible to be capped for Ireland at both rugby and cricket - as has been the case!
Well known Irish rugby names as Mick Dargan, Ham Lambert and Kevin Quinn, and others had the honour of dual international recognition --- and into the late 1960s, Ray Hunter, a sturdy Irish and Lions centre was playing both codes at International level.
Similarities between golf and rugby
Similarities between rugby and golf were a lively topic of conversion when I was invited to a dinner by Seamus Tighe, Captain at Killeen Castle golf club, near Dunshaughlin in County Meath. The game of golf - just like rugby - is facing a challenging time. But on the basis that class will out, there should be no qualms about the future of this Jack Nicklaus designed masterpiece.
I spoke about the relationship and parallels between our two sports. I hardly know of anyone in the oval ball game who does not also pursue the dimple ball game. In modern times I think of Jody Fanagan - who had all the looks at one stage of being a future Irish No. 10 rugby player - who, instead, achieved fame as an amateur golf and had the distinction of partnering Padraig Harrington to defeat the great Tiger Woods in a famous Walker Cup in 1995.
Similarly, our recent British Open champion Darren Clarke might have opted for a rugby career when he was shining as a dashing young centre three quarters with Dungannon.
And our own Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll were low handicap golfers before they decided to concentrate on rugby, thankfully!
I spoke of the resemblance between our two codes as are highlighted in the science and mechanics that are involved in stroking a putt and taking a place kick.
The great Christy O'Connor snr. - he of the renowned graceful, rhythmic and beautiful golf swing that all place kickers would die for- was instrumental in giving confidence to Ollie Campbell in his Triple Crown glory years. And currently the renowned place kicking rugby coach Dave Allred, who has assisted some of the Irish kickers, spends an equal amount of time coaching many of the top professionals on the European and American circuits on the basis that when you pull the trigger on a golfing putt or a place kick in rugby - the scientific measures are pretty much the same.
Clash of the Tash
Travelling to Galway, it was a pleasure to attend the match between the Irish Police and their British counterparts at the Sportsground.
It marked the 10th anniversary of the Garda Siochana and the Police Services of Northern Ireland coming together as one united rugby team, which the IRFU is delighted to endorse.
With the team jerseys bearing the crests of the Garda and PSNI together with the four provinces of Ireland; it is a telling example of how the Ireland Police team - and the game of rugby in general - plays its part in fostering good relations and peace building on the Island of Ireland.
The match, won incidentally 19-10 by the home team, had the added fun attraction of being billed the "Clash of the Tash'' as part of the annual "Movember'' campaign to raise funds and awareness for men's health issues. A wonderful gesture. Well done to all!
Scariff rugby club 50th anniversary dinner
Regrettably, I was unable to travel to east Clare and attend the 50th anniversary celebration dinner of Scariff rugby club. Junior vice President Martin O'Sullivan did the honours instead.
The pioneers of 1963 can truly be proud of the monument the club has built. What has been achieved is a worthy salute to the dream the founding members had of providing the outlet of rugby in their community.
The negative effects of our economic downturn have taken a toll on grassroots rugby, particularly in rural areas. But what shines through to me is the spirit of commitment that I am witnessing in my travels amongst the volunteer forces - Scariff being a shining example - who are determined to tackle adversity for the good of the local rugby club.
Scariff can be proud of how well the club has consolidated over the years and how it has given such an invaluable service to the Munster Branch and the IRFU itself. To President, Denis Moroney and all members I send my congratulations and best wishes for the future.
Old Wesley club - one of the oldest in country
Another clash of events prevented me from accepting President Jimmy Byrden's invite to Old Wesley's annual dinner. My Union fellow Committee man, Gerry Drennan stood in for what was a great evening of celebration.
Wesley's vice President Dave Bursey, Gerry Drennan himself and Blackrock College's ever witty Michael Jackson were the speakers. By all accounts, they each acquitted themselves admirably.
Old Wesley have good reason to be proud of themselves. Founded in 1891 and therefore one of the oldest clubs in Ireland, they have contributed richly to Irish rugby - not least in the provision of club legend Philip Orr, whose current administrative contribution sees him as a key contributor to the affairs of Leinster rugby and as a member of the IRFU Committee.
Currently playing in Division 2a of Ulster Bank League, Wesley holds the proud distinction of playing in the All Ireland League each year since its inception in 1990, which is a reminder of the Reunion Day they have organised for Saturday, January 11th when they are inviting all past players and alickadoos to come back to the club for the derby game against Bective Rangers.
Ulster Bank Rugby Force
My travels took me over to Westport for a great day of celebration to mark the club's winning of the popular Ulster Bank Rugby Force club excellence award for Connacht. Part of the prize was a training session with two of our most promising up and coming stars - Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion.
They certainly made a big impression with a huge collection of enthusiastic young members. It was lovely to see how Robbie and Kieran entered the spirit of the occasion. Congrats to Club President, Pat McCormack and fellow officer Stephen Walsh and thanks to Michael Cunningham of the Connacht Branch for all his help to me on the day.
De La Salle - Palmerston President Ciaran Daly and fellow member Michael Nugent, Chairman of the club's mini and youth's section, were proud men as I presented them with another Club Excellence award prior to the Ireland - Samoa game at the Aviva.
I was unable to attend the club's annual dinner - at which fellow Union delegate Des Lamont ably deputised. Representing a junior club myself, I empathise with the junior roots embedded in the De La Salle Palmerston club and I congratulate them on their 29th season of the merger.
The club can be proud of how well it has consolidated and how it has gained an enviable reputation for its structures and recruitment and the role it plays in the local community.
Your Club - Your Country Club Draw
As an ardent club man I shared in the anticipation as I made the draw for this year's "Your Club - Your Country''. I am delighted that €530,000 was raised for the 142 clubs who participated.
This means that in excess of €2 Million has now been raised by the clubs for themselves since this IRFU initiative, in association with Ulster Bank, was introduced in 2011.
In these tough economic times when the whole of Irish rugby faces many challenges, this revenue - against no outlay - has proven to be a most successful vehicle for club fund raising. It is also a reminder to the clubs who did not participate that they are missing a golden opportunity to realise the potential of raising up to €10,000 each!
I commend all those who supported their clubs by purchasing the €10 tickets - and I send special congratulations to main prize winners - William Keane from Newcastle West RFC, who won the VIP trip to Argentina in conjunction with Ireland's tour in June....Seapoint's Jim Connor, who won the VIP trip to Twickenham for the RBS Six Nations clash with England in February.....and Neville Verdon from De La Salle Palmerston FC, winner of the VIP trip to France for Ireland's final Championship match in March. What a pre Christmas present for them!
As we close the pages on 2013, I look forward to visiting many more rugby clubs and occasions in 2014. In the meantime, and on behalf of the IRFU, a very Happy Christmas and New Year's best wishes to all.