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.
The unifying power of sport is something the Hartstown Community School's senior rugby team is learning to amazing effect. Seven Irish students are joined in the starting fifteen of the Blanchardstown team by schoolboys of six different nationalities, with the school demonstrating one of sports' most powerful messages: integration.
The team, made up of kids from Chechnya, Ukraine, Lithuania, Nigeria, Kurdistan, Serbia and Ireland, is making an extraordinary success of breaking down divisions and introducing new groups to a part of national life.
The side was first put together in 2005 by Transition Year co-coordinator Paul Maloney, who initially took on the coaching role himself.
"It is a bit of a one-off, with the amount of non-nationals in the side. I encountered them first in Transition Year, and they were a fantastic bunch. They're very serious about their training and had an excellent attitude."
The current team's front-five includes five different nationalities, few of whom had ever played rugby before.
Prop Rustam Baudinov arrived from war-torn Chechnya with his uncle in 2005. "I came here at the start of transition year, and Mr. Maloney got me involved. I had seen American football before, but I'd never heard of rugby." Rustam enthusiastically emphasises that rugby is 'a real sport', feeling thoroughly at home with the physical aspects of the game.
He is joined in the front row by soft-spoken hooker Twana Aziz, a Kurd who grew up in Israel before moving to Dublin in 2005. He says that if he ever goes back to the Middle East, he wants to set up the first Kurdish team.
Loose-head Ebube Ononuju says, meanwhile, that he had also only encountered American football rather than rugby via television and video games. But he soon became an integral part of the team since arriving from Nigeria a year ago.
In the second row, Serbian Igor Grocur stands tall alongside Lithuanian Dalius Tamosauskis, both citing the camaraderie that exists between the players as the main reason why they will continue to play after they finish school.
Next week, the side plays in the second round of the Leinster Plate against Lucan CS, following a win over Firhouse. Maloney describes the team as 'confident and focused' ahead of the game. That confidence comes through in abundance as the players talk about the encounter against Lucan. "They beat us last year, so we are definitely going to get revenge," says towering second row Tamosauskis.
As for the mixed nature of the squad, Maloney says that the sides' make-up has come about more by chance than design, adding that "next year's side may well be mainly Irish players."
The team's captain, Ian Kirby, sees the positive integrating factor the team provides. "It's great. If it wasn't for the team, I wouldn't have known any of the lads. Rugby isn't an individual game, it's all about the team, so there's real bonding going on."
Winger Dalius Triuska, also from Lithuania, describes the moment when he really felt part of the team. "I went in to tackle a guy. After the tackle, everyone started shouting 'well done, Dalius' and I was like 'eh, why?' They told me I'd got two lads in one go, I didn't even realise."
Rustam goes further, saying: "When we step on the pitch, we, here, are like brothers."
Major progress in the development of rugby at Hartstown have been seen in recent years, but this season has witnessed a huge step up in training since the school received assistance from an IRFU initiative.
Christian Stemmett, the Leinster Community Development officer for the Fingal area, is one of the reasons for the thriving nature of the school's rugby team.
Originally from South Africa, Stemmett has an extensive knowledge of local rugby after stints at Castleknock College and Naas RFC, as well as working with Coolmine and Portmarnock CS. He has brought his coaching expertise as part of a pilot scheme by the IRFU to help direct schools who are new to rugby.
"The main aims of my job are to reach areas where rugby wouldn't normally have a big influence. The success of the programme is measured in the amount of kids that we get playing rugby - the ultimate success would be to get Hartstown in the future to have a few Leinster jerseys hanging in the corridor, that's the ultimate. Or maybe even a few Irish shirts, who knows?"
"Hartstown is probably the only school with the diversity, which makes it exciting to work with," says Stemmett. Looking forward to the cup match, Stemmett hopes the boys do themselves justice after their intensive training.
"I've been involved with the school now for two months and, in that time, we've won one, lost one, and drawn one. But we have the cup match next Monday so we're looking forward - just so long as these guys are enjoying themselves."
Simon Barnes, chief sports-writer at the London Times, described sport as 'the best weapon against the tensions of division ever devised,' and it's rare this idea has been so positively exemplified. The bonds created by rugby in Hartstown carry an inspirational message for the contemporary Irish psyche.
Reproduced with kind permission of Gazette Group Newspapers