Setting into the final leg of my year in office as President of the Irish Rugby Football Union, the diary remains chock-a-block and it fills me with great satisfaction and anticipation that much of my commitments centre on the club and schools’ game.
The upcoming Bateman All-Ireland Cup and All Ireland Junior Cup finals involving Dungannon and Bruff and Crosshaven and Monivea provide a good lift-off with a double header at Templeville Road.
Following that, I look forward to the various play-offs and then the finals of the Ulster Bank League. Its competitiveness is highlighted by promotion and relegation issues in all divisions as outlined in the final league series of Division 1 when over 80 percent of the games had such implications.
Our All Ireland inter-club competitions have again provided great fare this season. The colour and passion that I have witnessed respective bands of supporters bringing to the games is evidence of many positive elements of our grassroots game.
I have also been moved by the warm reception given to me on my various duties. That was certainly evidenced when I attended the Captain and President’s annual dinner at Cork Constitution. I was warmly welcomed by the captain Frank Cogan and President Der O’Riordan.
Brian Hickey took time out from his busy duties as coach to the high riding club’s first team to give a most entertaining and informative speech.
In addition, there was an acknowledgement on the night to the attending members of the 1991 Cork Con team that won the inaugural All-Ireland league 20 years ago. Could that be an omen for this season?
Unfortunately, then captain Michael Bradley could not attend, as he is coaching in Georgia. Michael is a top coach and I wish him every success.
Another feature on the night centred around club stalwart, Fred Casey, who was being inducted into the Club Hall of Fame. He has given the club great service, notably at underage level.
His unstinting commitment to the activities of his beloved Con is a reminder to me of the tremendous volunteerism that is the bedrock of club rugby throughout this island and for which the IRFU and provincial branches are most appreciative.
The Cork Constitution club, of course, is one of the strongholds in Irish rugby. Its members have made a huge contribution to the game and with in excess of 40 senior international capped players, I wonder aloud on precisely which of our clubs holds the record for most-capped players?
Another club in celebratory form is Cooke RFC – now 100 years-old! They have the proud boast of being the oldest junior club in Belfast and in keeping with a very nice rugby tradition in Ulster for clubs celebrating a centenary year, their President Ian Callaghan hosted the 100th year dinner in the opulent surroundings of Belfast City Hall.
Another Centenary dinner celebration was that of UCD, at which no fewer than 660 attended in the O’Reilly Hall at Belfield. It was the culmination of a hectic season’s programme of festivities for club President, Dr. Hugh Brady, and club captain Andy Cummiskey.
A great night of celebration and nostalgia included a tour de force address from the redoubtable Ned Thornton. This most enjoyable evening also included the announcement of Bobby Byrne as new director of rugby in place of John McClean, who is retiring at the end of the season.
I have long been an acquaintance of John, who has done tremendous work for schools rugby and for the success of the game at UCD.
It was by happy coincidence that in the same week of the Centenary dinner, UCD clinched promotion to Division 1B of the Ulster Bank League for next season and, on the night, UCD also clinched the Leinster J1 League title with their 12th win in as many games! What a record.
Another engaging talking point on the night was the announcement of UCD’s Team of the Century – not an easy one to pick. What is your own estimation? The answer can be found on the club’s website.
Another celebration I attended with a UCD connection was at the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council offices when our own Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll was ‘officially made an honorary Southsider’ and received a certificate of honour and silver scroll from Cathaoirleach Lettie McCarthy.
The local authority also awarded the first Brian O’Driscoll Rugby Scholarship to UCD and Ireland Under-20 winger Andrew Boyle.
The bursary is worth €;5,000 and will be given by the Council each year to help a young rugby player in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown to attend UCD where, of course, O’Driscoll excelled.
Another ceremony I greatly enjoyed was the launch of the IRFU Club Excellence Awards, with eight clubs receiving the award under a pilot scheme – Ballina, CIYMS, Clondalkin, Galway Corinthians, Midleton, Randalstown, Seapoint and Suttonians.
Two events in support of the IRFU Charitable Trust for seriously injured players were another highlight in my calendar. The second annual Gala Concert organised for the Trust by Mrs. Irene Trenier and her hard working Committee at the National Concert Hall, was another outstanding success.
Once again, a wonderful array of talent was assembled. It was led by the Band of the Garda Siochana, who were accompanied by West End star Peter Corry and Irish soprano Fiona Murphy.
They were joined by The King’s Hospital Chapel Choir and a chorus of 100 children. The MC for the night was George Hook. A great night’s entertainment was provided, in a very worthy cause.
At another function, this time in the Aviva Stadium in conjunction with the Ireland v France match, the Trust was in receipt of €;10,000 from officials of Rugby Du Monde from Toulouse, the adopted town of our own Trevor Brennan, with whom I was delighted to catch up for a chat.
Referees are much in the news these days but glad to say that these committed and hard working ‘whistlers’ also take some time out to shoot the breeze. I was delighted to join in and be regaled by them at the Leinster Referees Association Dinner at Old Wesley and at the Munster Referees Annual Dinner at the Rochestown Park Hotel in Cork.
The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day also has a strong rugby association when the various Schools Cup finals are played. I am proud to say that I have been very involved in the propagation of schools rugby down through the years.
I rarely miss a final. At a packed RDS, Clongowes Wood College duly fulfilled the promise they had shown throughout the campaign with a comprehensive win over Cistercian College Roscrea to make their own school history by winning the trophy for a second successive time.
At the same time, Campbell College regained supremacy of Ulster and Rockwell College made it third time lucky when they made up for defeat in the previous two years by beating PBC.
The Connacht Schools Cup went to Colaiste Iognaid when they reversed the outcome of last year’s final to beat Sligo Grammar – and I would like to mention here the joy for Rice College of Westport who, in winning the Connacht Junior Cup, had the distinction of bringing the first provincial rugby cup at schools level into County Mayo. This is a wonderful illustration of the spread of the game in the West of Ireland.
The curtain then came down on the RBS 6 Nations Championship in fine fashion with Ireland producing a wonderful performance to beat England – yet again!
The display that day was an endorsement and justification of the style of rugby being developed under Declan Kidney and the whole management team and being implemented by Brian O’Driscoll and the players.
A memorable day, when it was so heartening to note our new Aviva Stadium echoed to the old ‘Lansdowne roar’, was truly embellished by the presence of President Mary McAleese at the official pre-match luncheon and afterwards at the game.
The IRFU greatly appreciates the President’s support for Irish rugby by her attendance at matches through thick and thin. Her presence serves to give the team members a pre-match feeling of special recognition.
That sense of occasion is also palpable amongst the attendance – and the Irish rugby community and the nation is uplifted.
Her Excellency’s presence is also a symbol of how, on this island, we treat visiting teams, officials and supporters with a warm welcome and the friendly hospitality for which Ireland is legendary.
Pardon me, if I add the rider, until the match begins, that is!
Caleb Powell, IRFU President