I am delighted to extend a very Happy Christmas and safe and peaceful New Year to our extensive rugby family.
Christmas time marks a halfway point in the rugby season and while we can look back and be greatly sustained by events of 2014, I believe we can also look forward with due optimism to what awaits in 2015.
There is certainly much to look forward to in a year which is highlighted by the staging of the Rugby World Cup in England and Wales in September and October.
The build-up is further spiced by our defence of the RBS 6 Nations Championship in February and March, with juicy home games against France and England, and then by a series of pre-World Cup warm-up matches in August, including home games against Scotland and Wales.
The fortunes of our provincial teams in the GUINNESS PRO12 and the new look European Rugby Champions and Challenge Cups, adds further luster to a fascinating fixtures calendar.
All the while, of course, Irish rugby’s domestic scene will command its own special appeal. From the dawning of the New Year right through to May, and taking account of the hectic club, schools, women’s and third level sectors, the grassroots landscape will, as always, be engrossing and action-packed.
Anticipation is all the more considering the heights reached by our history-making Women’s team in their World Cup in France last August.
So here’s hoping for another wonderful year for Irish rugby in 2015.
Meantime, I continue to be greatly absorbed and fulfilled in my duties as IRFU President and the opportunity it gives me to experience at first hand all that is happening across all sectors of our game.
Kick-Off for Rugby World Cup 2023
A highlight this month was being in attendance at The Royal School, Armagh for the formal announcement by the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government’s backing of the IRFU’s bid to host Rugby World Cup in 2023.
The weight of their support was underlined by the presence of An Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the Tanaiste Joan Burton, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
The IRFU delegates in attendance along with myself were Chief Executive Philip Browne, Management Committee Chairman Finbarr Crowley, and Union vice Presidents Martin O’Sullivan and Stephen Hilditch.
Having the World Cup in Ireland in nine years’ time would be a wonderful reward for Irish rugby and I repeat our gratitude to the GAA for their assistance in our bid.
Partnering with Connect Ireland and Pieta House
I was delighted to meet with Joanna Murphy from Connect Ireland and with Joan Freeman from Pieta House to begin the roll out of two very important new IRFU initiatives.
At a time when all clubs have been hit hard hit by the economic recession and emigration, the Union’s partnership with the Government’s jobs programme – Connect Ireland – aims to create jobs nationwide…with hopefully some return for our hard hit rugby clubs.
Another club focused initiative is the IRFU’s partnership with Pieta House to put in place a mental fitness initiative called ‘Mind Ur Buddy’.
Pieta House and the Union are helping to educate and equip club members to spot signs when someone is in suicidal crisis and the scheme will see nominated club members being trained to support their peers and overcome personal issues.
My old Alma Mater – Marian College
It was a special and emotional highlight for me to join in the 60th anniversary celebrations of my old alma mater, Marian College, at a special function in the Aviva Stadium.
Having spent 10 years in the college as a pupil and a further 37 years as a teacher (and 30 as a rugby coach), I was privileged to be invited to attend and to speak. I played my first ever rugby match for Marian in September 1958 on the back pitch at Lansdowne Road and I owe a great deal to the school for always supporting my involvement in rugby as a player and administrator.
Joe Schmidt also attended the function and made a great speech. He is such a wonderful ambassador for Irish rugby.
Monkstown FC annual dinner
There is a special connection between my time at Marian College and the Monkstown club.
It was, therefore, my honour as President of the Irish Rugby Football Union to share in the celebration of the club’s annual club dinner.
I feel very much at home at Sydney Parade having played against the club on many occasions – indeed with some of my class-mates from Marian College in opposition – notably Barry Carty and Allo Munnelly.
In later years, many of my past pupils from Marian played for Monkstown – Tom Anderson, Danny Dent, Roberto Caira, David Bourke, Ross Bradshaw to mention but a few…
It was a most enjoyable occasion, hosted so well by club President, Eamonn Kelly.
De La Salle Palmerston – and special milestones
There was a special celebration also at the annual De La Salle Palmerston annual dinner. It marked the 30th dinner since the merging of the two clubs, Palmerston and De La Salle.
March next will see the 40th anniversary of the formation of the club’s renowned underage programme. These are most worthy milestones and the club is to be congratulated on continuing to develop all aspects of rugby.
Dave Lillis is President this season and is a very popular and hard working member. Conor McCormack, as Chairman of rugby, continues to ensure that the club sends out teams, including a Women’s side, each week.
A special moment of the evening was the induction of stalwart member Mick Foley into the club’s Hall of Fame.
A Gala event for Ashbourne’s 40th anniversary
Another celebration was that of Ashbourne’s 40th anniversary, done in great style with a Gala Ball at the Pillo Hotel in Ashbourne, Co. Meath. Club President Pat Rooney hosted the occasion which was organised by a committee headed up by Hon. Secretary Bill Duggan.
A really great rugby evening saw the club’s first President, Tom Higgins, roll back the years – and to round off the occasion Mick Quinn and Joe Schmidt provided some very entertaining moments in their speeches.
Clongowes Wood College – 200th anniversary
This year marked the 200th founding celebration of Clongowes Wood College in Co. Kildare. Clongowes is renowned throughout the world for its wonderful education and sporting achievements.
Rugby has played a huge part in the history of the school. It has been continuously blessed with much vaunted talent in the form of my grandfather Louis Magee, right through to current internationals, Gordon D’Arcy, Fergus McFadden and the Kearney brothers, Rob and David.
Clongowes Wood has also provided outstanding rugby coaches, in the form of Fr. Michael Sheil SJ, the late Vinnie Murray, and the incumbent Noel McNamara. Indeed, Noel has made an outstanding contribution to Irish rugby as head coach to the Leinster and Ireland Schools teams.
New ground for London Irish…Exiles awards
It was a special delight for me to be invited to the official opening of the London Irish club’s new grounds and facilities at Hazelwood.
Monsignor Patrick Devine, a hugely inspiring man, who lives and works in Africa as Executive Chairman of Shalom Centre of Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, conducted a very sensitive and moving ceremony at the Avenue, Sunbury and later at the new facility.
I wish Mick Crossan and all at London Irish the very best of luck. The amateur club and the professional side now share the very impressive facilities and it is clear that the club is now firmly based in the community with 18 sides playing every weekend.
My visit to London also enabled me to attend the Exiles awards night in Cricklewood. It was a special occasion where the emphasis was to acknowledge and honour the large number of volunteers throughout the UK who now help to ensure that the Exiles are vibrant and ensuring that Irish qualified players are available to be monitored and selected for the Ireland national age-grade sides – and upwards.
1972 ‘would be Grand Slam team’ remembered
The Grand Slam hopes of the 1972 Ireland team were cruelly dashed when, after opening victories over France and England away, the home games against Scotland and Wales were famously cancelled when both Nations declined to travel ‘because of the Troubles’’. In so doing, they denied the rampant Irish team a probable Grand Slam.
Thoughts of what might have been came flooding back 42 years later when the Association of Sports Journalists, in conjunction with Lucozade Sport, made a special presentation to the team members and coach Ronnie Dawson at a marvellous Golden Legends luncheon in the Croke Park Jury’s Hotel.
The same 15 players appeared in both winning games and were all in attendance. It was wonderful to see them in such fine fettle – Tom Kiernan (captain), Tom Grace, Mike Gibson, Kevin Flynn, Wallace McMaster, Barry McGann, Johnny Moloney, Ray McLoughlin, Ken Kennedy, Sean Lynch, Willie John McBride, Con Feighery, Stewart McKinney, Fergus Slattery, Denis Hickie – 10 Lions and seven Irish captains! What a team.
World War 1 and Irish rugby…
It was with great pride that I attended two ceremonies remembering the many thousands of Irishmen, including numerous rugby players, who died between 1914 and 1918 during World War 1.
On Remembrance Sunday, there was a very sensitive and moving ceremony at the Ecumenical Service of Remembrance and Reconciliation at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
In September 1914, the President of the IRFU, F. H. Browning, called for volunteers from rugby clubs to assemble in Lansdowne Road. Over 300 did so and they went off to War as part of the Pals Battalion.
Many of these men died in action and others were badly wounded. We remember all the rugby men who fought and died during the Great War and World War 2.
Then on the morning of the Ireland v Australia GUINNESS Series game, my first function of the day was to lay a wreath on behalf of the IRFU at the War Memorial in the Aviva Stadium. The ceremony was attended by the IRFU Committee, Past Presidents, Trustees and partners.
Also in attendance were the President of the Australian Rugby Union, David Crombie, and his wife Margie and the ARU Chief Executive Bill Pulver.
It was another moving ceremony in remembrance of the IRFU Pals Battalion and indeed all the rugby players who lost their lives in battle. A significant piece of history was beautifully captured by Dr. Alan Rouse of UCD in an article in the match programme on the same day.
Women’s All-Ireland League Finals
Donnybrook last Saturday was another great rugby occasion when the Division 1 and 2 Women’s All-Ireland League finals were hotly contested.
They were two super matches and I was delighted to have the opportunity along with Mary Quinn, Chairperson of the Women’s game, to present Cooke RFC with the Division 2 trophy following their victory over Carlow.
The Division 1 final was contested between Blackrock and Old Belvedere, with Old Belvedere winning in fine style.
All four teams and their coaches and managers deserve great credit for ensuring a very entertaining afternoon of rugby played on the new 4G pitches.
‘Your Club, Your Country’
What a pre-Christmas bonus it has been for clubs who took part in the IRFU’s ‘Your Club, Your Country’ grand draw in association with Ulster Bank.
It raised a whopping €;654,000 for the clubs who participated – an increase of 23% on last year. As I pulled out the winning tickets for some super prizes, I was delighted to note that this initiative has now provided over €;2.6 million for clubs as part of the IRFU’s initiatives to help generate income for our club game.
The beauty of the scheme is that it is cost neutral for clubs as all the money raised is retained by the clubs – so congrats to all the clubs who participated and well done to the winners!
Remembering Jack Kyle, Ken Mills, and Christopher Healy
There were also moments of sadness as the Irish rugby family lost three great stalwarts towards the close of the year. On November 1 we learned of the death of Christopher Healy. He was paralysed as a result of an accident playing rugby on December 15, 1996.
Christopher was a member of Arklow RFC and thanks to the care and devotion of his mum and dad, Jenny and Christopher, along with sister Grainne, Christopher was able to lead a loving and independent life.
Ken Mills, past President of the Leinster Branch, Monkstown FC stalwart and former member of the IRFU Committee, passed away in October. Ken was a very special rugby man and will be sadly missed by his family and friends.
December 2 was also a very sad day for Irish rugby when I attended the Memorial Service in Belfast in honour of the great Jack Kyle, who had sadly passed away on November 28.
He was one of the greatest to play for Ireland and an absolute gentleman. A very spiritual and humble man, Jack devoted himself to the care of the sick in Zambia where he spent upwards of 30 years of his life.
May Jack, Ken and Christopher Rest in Peace.