As featured in Leinster Rugby v Bath match programme (16/01/16)
For Leinster fans of a certain vintage, Donnybrook will always be the home of Leinster Rugby. Hatted and hooded of a Friday night, ignoring the bitter wind sweeping through from the Wesley end, it was here that the hardened supporter first welcomed the likes of Shaggy, Mal, Reggie and Victor into their lives. It was also where their inner-Hook shone through as they assessed whether Brian O’Driscoll would ever make it in the game as they sipped on a flask of hot whiskey.
Sadly, it was also the draw of these players that sounded a death-knell of sorts for the stadium. The burgeoning success of the provincial side meant that the rusty turnstiles could no longer accommodate the crowds. As the Leinster fanbase continued to flourish, the old sodden ground was to be found idle in the echoes of cheers from the RDS.
Many less illustrious names from throughout the province will be familiar with the anxious feeling that often greeted them as they awoke on the morning of a game at Donnybrook. With their boots cleaned and a kitbag neatly packed, the 11am pitch inspection often unraveled lofty ambitions for the day ahead. A veritable mudbath by the spring, for many years Sandymount strand was relocated to the stadium to ensure that fixtures could be fulfilled… to some extent at least.
But as the legends of the Phoenix and Luke Fitzgerald have taught us – sometimes you just have to die a little to rise again…
Following an application grounded upon the amateur game, the Government announced that Leinster Rugby would be the subject of a special €750,000 grant in 2014. With an emphasis on the game at grass roots level, it was determined that these funds should be applied in a way that would best cater for the large contingent that take to the Donnybrook pitches each year. The consequent development of two 4G pitches in addition to the 2008 renovation of the Main Stand has seen the old ground become a focal point of Irish rugby once again.
Traditionally the HQ for the Leinster Schools’ Senior and Junior Cups, less heralded school leagues and competitions have also become a feature of the revised stadium calendar which now guarantees up to 40 hours of rugby every week. Remarkably, almost 50,000 parents, peers and patrons poured through the gates to watch their loved ones shed blood, sweat and tears for their school in 2014/2015.
With the Donnybrook stage providing greater exposure to provincial coaches, underage representative sides had a more cosmopolitan feel last year with a wide variety of schools in the mix. Ten games featuring the Leinster Schools, Youths and U20’s teams took place on the new surface that is also used by the Newcastle Falcons and Saracens. Upon returning to their respective clubs and schools, each player undoubtedly reflected upon a proud moment in their budding career and set their sights on further opportunities. As the breeding ground for the senior side alongside the Leinster A set-up, almost 7,000 fans availed of several chances to cast their eye over the next generation.
Beyond the Leinster scene, the IRFU have also recognised the quality of the updated facilities now at Donnybrook. Having successfully hosted the English last February, the Irish U20 side will look forward to welcoming Italy, Scotland and Wales in the 2016 U20 Six Nations, while in another coup for the stadium the Irish Women’s side will vacate their tenure at Ashbourne to engage the same nations in Dublin 4.
Announcing the venues last September, IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora commented that “the playing surface at Donnybrook Stadium is one of the best in the county and should allow both teams to play great rugby. Having watched the U20s there in 2015 I was really impressed with the stadium and I believe it will now bring something extra to the women’s game too.”
Donnybrook has also been keen to engage with regional competitions, communities and charities. In addition to hosting various club finals, several fun-filled events took place throughout the year including blitz days and tag rugby tournaments. A highlight of the season was when the Irish Legends took on their English counterparts in the Stuart Mangan Memorial Cup. Each event – whether for juveniles or those tipping the opposite end of the scale – has helped to further the cause of rugby at base level as had been envisaged by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.
So while the RDS will bellow upon the visit of Bath this evening, many fans will rest easy in the knowledge that their spiritual home – having hosted almost 90,000 spectators last season – continues to teem with life just around the corner.