10 Dec, 12:23
Ireland's John Lacey will referee his first ever RBS 6 Nations match in February, while Alain Rolland is also included in the Elite Panel in what is his last season.
Founded in 1892, Cork Constitution FC has a long and proud tradition of producing some of the finest club, provincial and international players. The current Munster roster includes no less than nineteen players, between the Academy, sub Academy, Under-20, 'A' and senior squads, who hail from Temple Hill, the home of Cork Con.
Trawl through the excellent history of the club on their website, or browse the walls of the clubhouse and you will see that this is not a new phenomenon. This is the club that gave us Murphy, Kiernan, Lenihan, Bradley, O'Gara...the list goes on.
But it is not just that the club produces great players at the top level. They seem to do it at every level.
A glance at the All-Ireland League table shows that while Constitution won the play-off title twice in recent seasons - 2009/10 and 2007/08 - they also finished top of the league table in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.
So what is it about Cork Con? What makes them rugby royalty? IrishRugby.ie visited the club recently to find out.
We met with members of the club, including current club President Der O'Riordan, club Chairman Jack O'Sullivan, head coach Brian Walsh and three-time club captain Frank Cogan.
We talked about the challenges facing clubs, the evolving role that professionalism has brought with it and how Cork Con are always looking to the future, but ever mindful of their proud tradition.
Professional rugby has had a huge impact on clubs, none more so than Cork Con.
Der O'Riordan takes up the story, explaining: "Like many clubs we struggled to come to terms with what it meant. Our best players were suddenly gone.
"We had nurtured them, brought them on and now they were gone from us. We were proud of their achievements but possibly a little resentful about losing them.
"It took time for us to adjust but we think we are in the right place now. We continue to develop the young players and when one of them is lucky enough to land a Development Contract or an Academy place we are proud of them.
"We know they may not play as many games for us from that point on, but we work hard to get the balance right."
Echoing this, Brian Walsh added: "Last season we handed out 35 medals to our first team squad. This reflected the fact that lads had to step in and out as the season dictated, but that each player earned his place."
On the night we visited the club there were a number of interested spectators for training, including Peter O'Mahony, Billy Holland, Simon Zebo and Scott Deasy - all fresh from Munster service.
None of them were training but all of them are Con boys. Some of them will probably feature for Cork Con in the All-Ireland League this season.
Like so many of the players in the club these young men have come up through the ranks. Starting out playing mini rugby with the 'Conettes', developing in school and then coming back to the club while at the same time starting out on a professional rugby career. It is a hallmark of Constitution players that they are loyal to the club.
They will not thank me for saying it but that loyalty is equally clear when you see the 'old hands' such as top points scorer Richie Lane and flying winger Cronan Healy warming up alongside younger players coming up through the ranks.
Cork Con have adapted to the new rugby landscape and have ambitious plans for attracting people back to the game.
Last season the newly restructured Division 1A with eight teams was the most competitive in years. The rugby was highly pressurised and clubs like Constitution, Blackrock, Dolphin, St. Mary's and others all featured contracted players.
It is this combination of improved quality of the game and the opportunity to see these rising young stars that forms the bedrock of Cork Con's plans. In recessionary times, a 'tenner' to your local club seems good value for money to catch some future Munster and Ireland stars in action.
The plans do not stop there though. A fabulous new clubhouse is in the offing for Cork Con, with top of the range fixtures and fittings for the playing and coaching staff.
"We want our players to know that they are the most important part of the club," said Chairman Jack O'Sullivan.
"The plans are at an advanced stage and once we have completed the project we will have the best facilities a player could look for in a club, but also a wonderful clubhouse for the alickadoos who are still an important part of the club."
That new clubhouse will be needed for the future members. Like many clubs, Cork Con is packed to the gills on a Saturday morning as their 600 or so 'Conettes' take part in a mini rugby programme that emphasises skill, participation and teamwork above all else.
The simple investment in a good coffee machine means that parents, when not helping out with the coaching, can enjoy the Saturday paper with a nice brew and the club has another revenue stream.
The club are also very conscious of the contribution of their sponsors, even more so in the current economic climate.
They understand the need to give 'value for money' and are actively engaging with local media. Their appearances live on RTE in the finals of the All-Ireland League Division 1 and All-Ireland Cup last season was duly noted by first team sponsors, the Rochestown Park Hotel.
There is a small President's Bar in the current clubhouse. Some of the most dramatic changes in Irish rugby - the launch of the first All-Ireland League back in 1990 and the genesis of the Heineken Cup - were partly conceived here by the legendary Tom Kiernan.
The rugby landscape has changed dramatically since then, and clubs have had to embrace the challenge and evolve. The new Temple Hill clubhouse will soon reflect that change and Cork Con's response to that challenge.
The signs are there already that the future is bright - in the strong green shoots on the first pitch (completely regrown after the hard winter damage last season), in the freshly painted steps and fencing (a result of a club painting party).
And in the number of rugby players who will line out for Constitution this season or who will don a Munster or Ireland jersey and have the words Cork Constitution in brackets after their name.
A final comment illustrates the ethos of this club - "Our minis take turns providing a guard of honour for the firsts. We have to share it out each week or the guard of honour would stretch from the clubhouse to the far 22!
"At the end of the season, the firsts present their jerseys to younger players in the club. It is amazing to see the young lads wearing the Con jersey with as much pride as a Munster or Ireland one."
Related Links -
Later this week - Irish Rugby TV: Cork Con In Focus (Part 2 with Brian Walsh and Frank Cogan)