The rugby career of Ian Whitten has come full circle. An English Premiership and European Cup winner with Exeter Chiefs, he decided to go back to where it all began for him at Instonians RFC before he hangs up his boots for good.
Now 36, he started playing rugby from a young age with the club’s minis. His father John played for Instonians during the 1980s, and Ian gained Energia All-Ireland League experience with Queen’s University and Ballymena before making his mark in the professional ranks.
Playing in the All-Ireland League was a period of his early playing days that he enjoyed immensely. He encourages fellow ex-professionals to try and finish in domestic club rugby if their bodies allow it.
“Everybody’s situation is different. For some guys their bodies are just done. I’m lucky enough that my body feels okay and I’m able to go out there and play,” Whitten told IrishRugby.ie.
“You’re a long time retired. It’s been so nice to be back. Of course, it was great to be a professional, I got paid and had opportunities to play in front of big crowds, but I’ve always just enjoyed playing the game.
“I think it has also helped me transition into retirement because I’m still getting to play the game, alongside my (three) brothers too.
“I’m still enjoying it, and all the banter that comes with that. I’m glad I did it rather than going cold turkey and just stopping altogether. It’s fun. It was a no-brainer for me.”
When he graduated from Wallace High School and Queen’s, he went on to establish himself as a highly-regarded centre, representing Ulster 63 times and playing twice for Ireland during their 2009 tour of the USA and Canada. He joined Premiership club Exeter three years later.
He enjoyed some great times at Sandy Park under the guidance of shrewd director of rugby Rob Baxter, winning two Premiership titles and most famously, the 2020 Heineken Champions Cup.
The final chapter of his playing career is undoubtedly a special one, with family connections all over the pitch. With Inst he is lining out with his three younger brothers, Alan, Robert, and David (all pictured below with dad John). When Instonians director of rugby Clem Boyd phoned him, it was an opportunity he could not turn down.
The day I told Rob I was retiring, about an hour later, Clem rang me and said if you’re retiring, don’t fully retire just yet. He asked me what my plans were, and I said yes to coming back and playing for Instonians.
“To be playing alongside my brothers, it was something that had to happen. We had never all played together before. I played with Alan, I didn’t play with Robert, and I definitely didn’t with David as he is a good bit younger than me.
“Alan, Robert and I used to play together in the backyard as kids but that was about it. It’s a sentimental feeling to be able to play with all your brothers. It’s something I always wanted to come back and do.”
He was full of praise for his youngest brother, David, who has really impressed him this season. The talented number 8 made the move to Inst after captaining Queen’s to the Division 2A title and a long-awaited Ulster Senior Cup crown.
“David is still young, the rest of us are getting on a little bit. He’s good. He can still run, I wish I could run like him! He’s just one of those guys you make sure you get the ball to.”
Instonians have been on a remarkable run of form since regaining senior status at the end of the 2021/22 season. They have strung together 27 consecutive bonus point wins in the AIL, an eye-wateringly excellent record they could yet extend further when the league resumes this Saturday.
Having been crowned Division 2C champions with a perfect 18 bonus point victories out-of-18, player-coach Paul Pritchard and his team-mates remain unbeaten at the top of Division 2B, with only Galway Corinthians (six points back) and Wanderers (eight) within touching distance.
Despite what their enviable record might suggest, Inst have had to dig deep at times during the first half of the season. There was just a point in it when they pipped Wanderers at Merrion Road in November, and the table toppers have been involved in their fair share of battles so far.
“The lads just love scoring tries, the defence can sometimes be the Achilles heel,” admitted Whitten. “It’s good to be on an unbeaten run, but you have to just take it game by game and play what’s in front of you.
“Corinthians and Wanderers aren’t going to go away. We’ll be fighting it out with them, Even in some of the other games, we’ve been in some real dogfights for 20 or 30 minutes. We just have to try and keep winning.”
The Saturday bus trips for away games are always recounted with great fondness by AIL players, both past and present. Inst are back on the road to Malahide at the end of the month, following Belfast duels with near neighbours Harlequins, and Dolphin.
Regardless of whether you win, lose or draw, the ‘craic and cans’ afterwards often create some of the best club stories that will be told for years to come. This is an aspect of AIL rugby life that Whitten has enjoyed reliving.
“Sitting at the back of the bus with my brother Alan and Richie McCarthy, the two other older guys on the team. Enjoying a few cans after winning a game of rugby. It’s been good. It’s old school rugby, I’ve enjoyed it.
“I’ve always loved going to the different grounds. I really like Musgrave Park, and going to little towns you’d never probably go to. We’ve got the Galway trip coming up (in March), I hope I make it for that trip,” he added.