The Irish Exiles organisation was the brain-child, in 1989, of Tom Kiernan, the former British & Irish Lion and Ireland Captain, and thereafter an influential member of the International Board. Tom pulled together a meeting in London of 'exiled' rugby personnel in England (predominately), many of whom remain committed to the cause to this day e.g. Noel Traynor (later to become the London Irish President), the former Munster prop Tom Hennessy, and others named herein. The outcome was that the Exiles were established as a formal Sub-Committee of the Irish Rugby Football Union.
The primary intention of the organization was clear: to strengthen Irish Rugby by the recruitment of first- and second- generation Irish-qualified players from the ranks of those playing in England, Scotland, Wales & France. A secondary function was to act as a conduit for those Irish players who had become 'voluntary Exiles', i.e. they had moved from Ireland, to further their career, for example, or because they believed the streets of London were actually paved with gold…!
Tom Kiernan remained Chair of the Exiles for a number of years of distinguished service. The first 'local' Chair of the Sub-Committee was Irish international Dr. Barry O'Driscoll and the Secretary/Treasurer was the late David Donovan (of treasured memory). An Under 21/Student section and committee was also established, the Chair being Walter Jones and the Secretary John Hunter. The format was thus established in that we would produce Exiles representative XVs at both senior and under 21/student levels.
The first two seasons saw friendly fixtures take place, e.g. versus Ulster at Ravenhill and versus the Welsh Exiles senior XV; (both the Welsh and Scottish unions saw merit in going down the same road as us). Our first senior XV Coach was British & Irish Lion Dr. Ken Kennedy. At the Under 21/Student level, a particularly important step forward was when we played the full Ireland U21 XV at Sunbury - and ran them close. Such progress did not go amiss in Dublin and the upshot was that we were invited to participate in the IRFU Inter-Provincial Championships for the 1992/93 season.
Thus began what we may well look back on as a 'golden' period for the influence of the Exiles in Irish Rugby. Entry into the Inter-Provincial Championship brought its own problems - and, fortunately, solutions. The need to have the players (from all over the country plus France) together for training was paramount, which in turn required suitable financing. In stepped a benefactor whom we have been indebted to, to this day, Joe Kennedy of Manchester. Joe's generosity enabled us to have pre-season training camps (for 3 years ultimately) at a beautiful venue in the Basque country - St. Pée-sur-Nivelle.
For those of us who worked with the squads there, the ambiance will always be remembered as second-to-none. The pre-season rugby-related preparation was ideal, assisted by off-the-field locations where camaraderie abounded. Who will forget the mellifluent baritone singing of the former French international prop Pierre Dospital in his own Basque restaurant, 'competing' with the Count John McCormack/Joseph Locke tenor renditions of our own Joe Kennedy?! Hence, we went into that first championship very well prepared and, indeed, we could - and should - have won it at the first attempt.
The watershed was the game against Ulster at Rosslyn Park. An intercept try when we were seemingly winning comfortably cost us the game. However, when one looks back at the players we fielded, the strength of the exiles input by then into Irish Rugby can be gauged. We fielded Jim Staples, Simon Geoghegan, David Curtis, Rob Saunders, Gary Halpin, and Matt Keenan (internationals all), and the coach was, by now, the British & Irish Lion Dr. John O'Driscoll.
At the same time, the Under 21/Student XVs were making a significant mark. They went from 1990 to 1992 unbeaten, including the first of the Triangular U21 Tournaments between the Scots, Welsh and ourselves. The 1994/95 season witnessed a significant landmark at this level. Three Exiles represented Ireland at U21 level, one of them - Simon Mason - going on to full international honours. Justin Bishop replicated these feats, starting in the following season.
Committee personnel started to change, with additions benefiting our endeavours. Peter Halsall became our U21/Students Coach and has now become Coaching Coordinator and Chair of the Playing Task Force. Ces Shaw became our Under 21/Student Chair and is now Honorary Secretary. Gary McManus has joined the management group and is the Chair of the Commercial and Marketing task force with John Gilligan taking over from Feidlim MacLoughlin as Honorary Treasurer.
We also became fully integrated into the IRFU and Irish international Feidlim MacLoughlin was our first President; Barry O'Driscoll simultaneously became our first representative on the IRFU Committee.
Irish internationals continued to emerge from our ranks, e.g. Christian Saverimutto, Justin Fitzpatrick, and the current tally shows that twenty one Exiles players have played senior International Rugby since our formation, including all the afore-mentioned. This number includes two British & Irish Lions - Simon Easterby (2005) and Rob Henderson (2001) - and Simon added to his honours by captaining Ireland in the autumn internationals 2005.
Another milestone was reached in 2005 when Mark Bruce became our first Sevens international for Ireland. He was joined in 2008 by Richard Briggs, when the Ireland Sevens Coach became Exile Jon Skurr (the former Ireland U21 international) and the side was captained by Exile Kieran Campbell (the 15s international scrum-half). Jon & Kieran retained their places for the 2009 World Cup. In 2010 Dan Tuohy and in 2011 Mike McCarthy became the lastest exiles to earn a full international cap.
The onset of professional rugby changed our perspectives but, fortunately, we were already prepared for a new future. Our emphasis had moved to player development in the U17-21 age-groups, with fixtures at U18 and U19 levels predominating.
The success of this strategy can be seen by the number of age-group internationals we have produced for Ireland in recent years. This reached its zenith in season 2005-06 when we had a record number of fourteen players capped collectively at U21, U19 and U18 levels.
Season 2006-07 saw our youngest internationals coming to the fore, with eight (another record number) being capped by Ireland U18 Clubs and seven having the good fortune to be involved with the Ireland squad that finished as runners-up to the hosts (France) in the FIRA-AER U18 tournament. This feat was replicated in 2008, when six played vs. France in the FIRA-AER final (Ireland having beaten England in the semi-finals on both occasions).
In 2009, pride of place went to Ciaran & Rhys Ruddock (pictured), who both were ever-present during the season for Ireland U20s, and played in the Junior World Cup, Ciaran being honoured with the captaincy against the 'Baby All Blacks'. Since 1999 we have held a Screening Camp for 60+ young players annually (for the U17-19 age-groups).
The majority of the above-mentioned came through this process. This has been followed up in September for the past four seasons with a (highly successful - on and off the field) U18 tour to Ireland, playing all the provinces on a biennial basis, and we are now playing inter-provincial matches at U19 and U20 levels as well. The continuity factor can be demonstrated by the fact that five of the original sub-committee are still actively involved. Noel Traynor is President Elect and John O'Driscoll is our representative on the IRFU Committee.
The 'next generation' of committee members is also emerging, with the above-mentioned Simon Mason having been elected on to the Branch Committee on his return to England in 2005. With the retirement in July 2009 of the long serving John Hunter as the development manager former Exiles player Mark Blair has stepped into the breach to continue and enhance John's hard work.
We judge our success, not by the results of teams we field but, by the number, and quality, of players we produce for Ireland International XVs. We hope that this potted history will inspire many more young men to follow in the footsteps of those named herein who have contributed to that "quality" mission.