IRUPA Chief says Ireland is Ready for the World

As published on IRUPA.ie

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When Liam Neeson says something, you tend to believe it.

“Despite being a small island on the edge of the world,” he begins in the IRFU’s launch video for the 2023 Rugby World Cup bid, “… we have discovered that there is nothing that we can’t achieve.”

Whilst we are often reminded of our little nation’s capabilities, Neeson’s narration takes on an added resonance in light of recent events in Chicago. For 111 years the famed All Blacks were the most reluctant to allow Ireland to think big on the rugby field. But now that particular milestone has been ticked off, Irish rugby is in hot pursuit of another objective.

With the co-operation of the GAA, the IRFU has assembled a bid that will surely be the envy of the rugby world. Comprising of 12 stadiums from across the four provinces and drawing upon the idiosyncrasies of the Irish culture, the bid presents a unique opportunity to showcase a part of the world that is special to so many. Following the withdrawal of Italy from the process, it is hoped that the campaign will surpass the portfolios advanced by France and South Africa – countries that have previously hosted the competition.

With a career that has crossed several continents, IRUPA CEO Omar Hassanein is well placed to advocate the claims of Ireland’s 2023 bid. Starting out in Australia with the Randwick club, Hassanein later moved to Japan, Italy and France before finally settling in Ireland.

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“When I arrived in Dublin 2011, I was coaxed out of retirement by Monkstown RFC,” Hassanein recalls. “As a professional player, the game can sometimes become a bit of a grind but in dusting down my boots in Ireland I remembered why it was that I loved this game so much. Despite being an Australian stranger, the team welcomed me into their club as one of their own. Indeed, many of those with whom I played remain great friends to this day. But I soon realised that this wasn’t something out of the ordinary; indeed it is something that the Irish have become renowned for across the globe.

“I think it would be amazing if the Irish people were to have the opportunity to extend their famous welcome to the people of the world. With a vibrant economy and the infrastructure to match, not only would it be a festival of rugby, but it would also be an opportunity to celebrate the Irish spirit, to call the Irish diaspora home and to create some special memories.

“If the Irish can have that much craic abroad following their national teams, imagine what it would be like right on our doorstep!”

 

 

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It’s Not Easy Being Niyi-zi

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As published in InTouch Magazine, November edition.

There was an old saying I came across before: “It’s six o’clock and there isn’t a cow milked or a child washed.” I’d strongly suspect that it applied throughout Connacht on the morning after last season’s Pro12 final.

Nobody could claim to have been around when Queen Méabh led the warriors of Connacht into battle to claim the most famous bull in Ireland in the Cattle Raid of Cooley. In time, legend will record that it was actually Pat Lam in charge that day.

I remember being aghast at the dinner table as Kerry’s Maurice Fitzgerald split the uprights from the sideline to force a replay with Dublin in the 2001 All-Ireland Quarter-Final. I took a break from work to watch Tony McCoy rally his horse to take the lead yards from the line for his 4,000th career win in 2013. I was still dismissing Dundalk’s chances until Robbie Benson raced clear to secure a 3-0 win over Bate Borisov in the Champions League last August.

These are all moments that have become part of Irish sporting folklore and last May another was added: Where were you when Niyi Adeolokun chipped over the Leinster defence to help seal Connacht’s first ever Pro12 title in Edinburgh and shake up the old provincial order?

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“I’ll never forget it but it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. It’s all a bit surreal,” Adeoloukun admits. “It just felt like any other game though, no different to when I scored for De la Salle or Trinity, but I’m sure that in time when I look back and reflect upon what we did throughout the season, the significance of that moment will hit me.”

Having arrived in Terenure as a 10 year old from Nigeria, Adeolokun’s sudden rise in Irish rugby has taken an unfamiliar route. A talented sportsman, Adeoloukun may have been togging out for Dublin against Mayo had he remained with the Templeogue Synge Steet GAA Club. Shelbourne FC also harboured his talent before his rugby prowess was unearthed.

“Sport was my life. I threw my hand at everything at De la Salle Churchtown – usually to get of class! But when I was cut from Leinster U19 Development squad shortly before the inter-pros began I was more disappointed than I might have imagined. I was about to start 6th year so I made a conscious decision to cut down on everything and focus on my rugby… and studies!”

Lorcan Balfe, Adeolokun’s principal, then brought the speed merchant to the attention of Tony Smeeth, the Director of Rugby at Dublin City University. “I had four brilliant years under Tony but he knew that professional rugby was in my sights. He played his part in making that happen, sending out my highlights reel to a few of his contacts in the game – one even went as far as Bernard Jackman at Grenoble! But it was Nigel Carolan who acted on it and set up a trial at Connacht.”

Niyi Adalukan scores a try 21/5/2011

An opportunity for Adeolokun to showcase his ability was first presented in a game against Russian side Enisei in April 2014. Following a comfortable 54-21 win, Pat Lam wasted little time and invited the winger to join up with the side. “It was a very easy decision to come out west. I would have gone anywhere to play professional rugby but when Connacht expressed an interest I was delighted because it also meant that I could stay in Ireland and remain close to family and friends.”

Within a few weeks of his professional debut, Adeolokun had signed a three-year contract and his momentum continued to build thereafter. His impressive early season form has seen him sign a further extension that will see him remain at the Sportsground until at least the summer of 2019. Furthermore, a long awaited international bow came with the visit of Canada to the Aviva Stadium in November.

While Adeolokun’s personal aspirations are being fulfilled, Connacht’s fortunes hit something of a setback in the early part of the season. With the team languishing in the lower end of the Pro12 table, they faced an uphill battle to return to the heights of last year.

“It was always going to be a hard ask to try and live up to what the championship winning team achieved. We are now the team that everyone wants to beat. But I’m sure that whatever the season brings, Pat is experienced enough to handle it and we can have another successful season at Connacht.

“In any event, regardless of what happens Pat Lam has had a huge influence on all of us. Obviously, he gave me the chance to play at this level but off the pitch he is equally significant. He invests his time in making you a better person and places great emphasis on what is important to you. He knows exactly what makes each player tick and so all any of us want to do is our best for him.”

Once the cows were finally milked and all the children washed, the party continued across the City of the Tribes as the victorious side returned home. But despite the fanfare there was to be no postponing of the Galway Senior Football Championship. Life kicked on, the only difference being that all the youngsters in Pearse Stadium wore the green of their province and cradled a rugby ball. Few would have thought that a boy from the Nigerian town of Ibadan would be instrumental in bringing about that change.

Mossy Lawler: Past Player in Focus

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As published in InTouch Magazine (IRUPA), November edition.

When you were in school, did you have any idea what you hoped to do career wise?

Rugby was all I ever wanted to do and being a pro player was the goal even from a young age. Did I ever think it was going to happen??? I wasn’t sure but I did everything I possibly could to give myself the chance.

How did you embark on your rugby career?

I came through the age grade system in Munster the same way that the kids do now but there were no provincial academies in my day. There was just the one – the National Academy. I was disappointed not to have made it at the time but it never got in my way of reaching my goal. I played with the Irish 20s for two seasons, captaining them in my second year. I was offered a development contract with Munster after that and the rugby road really began.

Did you consider rugby to be a viable career option?

Yes, because at the time it was my only option.

 What third level education did you undertake and how did you balance study commitments with your training and playing schedule?

I never studied before turning professional which was a massive mistake on my behalf. I went into the game early and I never fully prepared myself for the aftermath. I eventually got sense in my later years and started to study while still playing. The balance is all about time management and it can all be done if you can organise your life properly. There is so much help available now through IRUPA to help players balance their commitments. There are no excuses anymore.

How did your rugby career progress?

I played with Munster from 2000-2009. I also spent a season with London Wasps but had to finish my career that year through injury. Rugby gave me my best years of my life but it was a mental battle rather than a physical one!

Do you think playing rugby has helped your off field career?

Very much so! If nothing else rugby gives you discipline, teaches you how to manage your time, and to have the utmost respect for your colleagues, friends and family. These are all traits that employers look for in an individual.

How was your retirement experience?

It was something that I was dreading because I loved the game so much. Jokingly, I had always said that I would play some sort of rugby until I was 40. But, when the time came I was ready. I was in a good place physically (sort of) but mentally I just had enough. I had already delved into the coaching world so I was ready for the next step.

 Looking back what did you most enjoy about playing rugby and what do you miss most?

I suppose the biggest thing I missed was the lads. You spend so much time with them every day both on and off the pitch that they really become an extension of your family. When it’s all over they are suddenly cut from your life. Yes, you have made friends forever and don’t get me wrong, it’s not like you will never see them again but that day to day connection, that suiting up on a Saturday together, that joy of victory together is gone.

What piece of advice would you give young players starting out today?

Get an education – Have RESPECT for all – Hard Work pays off!

Finally Mossy, what are you doing currently?

I am working for Connacht Rugby as an EPDO. My day to day duties are coaching the Academy and TIP groups around the regions. I am also Head Coach of the Connacht Eagles. Rugby has giving me everything past and present!

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Knocking Concussion on the Head

As published on PunditArena

In September it was announced that Nathan White was retiring from professional rugby based on medical advice following a concussion injury. The Connacht and Ireland prop arrived in Dublin from his native New Zealand in 2012 to join up with Joe Schmidt at Leinster before moving onto Connacht the following year.

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Prior to his injury against his former employers last March, White had established himself as a valued squad member in Schmidt’s Irish squads, garnering 13 caps in the space of eight months following his debut in August 2015. Sadly, he will not be adding to that tally.

The attritional nature of the professional game may be a joy for the public to behold but it has come at a cost. Between 2006 and 2012, Leinster duo Bernard Jackman and John Fogarty were the only professional rugby players to retire through concussion. However, in the past three years alone Craig Clarke, Declan Fitzpatrick, Kevin McLaughlin, David McSharry and now White have all suffered a similar fate.

When this is considered in isolation, it may seem that concussion is far more prevalent in the modern game. However, due to better education on the topic and heightened awareness of its signs and symptoms, players are now more likely than ever to take a sensible approach when dealing with brain injuries.

The rise in players retiring or taking long periods out of the game to recover from head injuries is a direct result of a more accepting culture within the game whereby players feel empowered to make the right decision for their health. Given the consequences of such trauma, rugby can no longer embrace those who make a heroic return to the field following a severe blow to the head. However, steps need to be taken to ensure that players are protected on a weekly basis and over the long term.

Headway, the brain injury services and support organisation, has teamed up with Ireland’s leading player GAA, soccer and rugby unions to launch Concussion Aware, a campaign in association with laya healthcare and LifeStyle Sports. The initiative is being backed by the likes of Irish captain Seamus Coleman, Dublin footballer Johnny Cooper, former Leinster rugby player Luke Fitzgerald and Donegal Ladies footballer Kate Keaney, and encourages coaches and athletes of all levels and ages to put their health to the fore and to remember, “If in doubt, sit it out.”

To get a better understanding of the players’ views on concussion, the Irish Rugby Union’s Players’ Association (IRUPA) has worked on a number of initiatives to determine the best means of further educating its members. Over a 16-month period between 2014 and 2016, the incidents of concussion amongst IRUPA members rose by 3.7%. The common perception may be that the increased physical nature of the sport has been the most significant factor, yet it must also be considered that there is a growing acceptance amongst players and coaching staff that concussion is an injury which needs to be taken seriously.

In an IRUPA survey carried out in October 2014, 13% of players who were concussed admitted that they were not confident that their head injury had cleared when they returned to play. In 2016, the same question was asked of IRUPA members with this number reducing to 10%. Although this figure remains high, it nevertheless represents an improvement of players’ concerns over a short period of time and an unwillingness on their part to take risks when it comes to brain injuries.

Last year, IRUPA in partnership with the IRFU, developed an online training course highlighting the signs, symptoms and effects of concussion. This module was made compulsory for all professional players in Ireland. It was designed to offer the players an interactive learning experience whilst providing real case studies of head injuries and testing their knowledge of the issue with a series of questions. This education tool, allied to World Rugby Concussion Management resource, has helped to provide players with the requisite insight to make informed decisions on the field of play.

In order to establish how effective the education drive had been in the period, IRUPA followed up with direct questions on players’ understanding on Head Injury Assessment (HIA), symptoms of concussion and the Graduated Return to Play Protocols (GRTPPs). The below statistics represent the changes in players’ awareness from the IRUPA surveys carried out in 2014 and 2016:

  • 2% players had a good to excellent understanding of HIA – + 14%.
  • 9% players had an excellent to good understanding symptoms of concussion – + 9.9%.
  • 8% players had a good to excellent understanding of GRTPPs – + 8.8%.

These results provide a direct correlation between the heightened awareness and understanding on the back of educational initiatives. Although it is recognised that knowledge of concussion has progressed amongst its membership, IRUPA continues to look for innovative ways to improve its methods of education to ensure players are making decisions with all the necessary information at their disposal.

As Omar Hassanein, CEO of IRUPA states: “Players must take responsibility to protect their health and well-being even in the heat of the moment. There has been a marked shift in the attitude towards concussion throughout professional rugby, but while we have made progress in raising awareness of the prospective dangers associated with concussion and its long-term effects, there is further ground to be made.”

To that end, the introduction of the Head Injury Assessment and its subsequent introduction into World Rugby’s regulations is seen a huge step in the right direction for the welfare of the players. Whilst this is certainly an improved position, it should also not be the final stance.

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Although there have been significant developments in the area from a professional perspective, there remains plenty of work to be done on the ground level. Speaking at the launch on Tuesday on Grafton Street, Kieran Loughran, CEO of Headway commented: “It’s evident that there is still a huge lack of awareness amongst the general public when it comes to concussion. 1 in 2 of those surveyed as part of our research admit they would not recognise the signs of concussion – this needs to be addressed.”

“It comes down to knowing the signs of concussion and looking after your team-mates and yourself,” Seamus Coleman added. “If a player is concussed, they may be in a confused state so will be relying on their teammates and coach to recognise that something isn’t right. If there is a shadow of a doubt, it’s so vital that they come off the field of play and sit it out. It might sound dramatic but you really could end up saving a player’s sports career, we’ve all seen some of our heroes having to retire early due to the impact of concussion.”

For further information visit http://www.concussionaware.ie and check out the campaign on Headway Ireland’s Facebook where you can download your personalised Concussion Aware frame to show your support.  

Players are also encouraged to show their support of Concussion Aware by wearing uniquely designed elite performance bootlaces, created especially for the campaign, and on sale in LifeStyle stores nationwide and online. 100% of the proceeds will go directly to Headway and to raising further awareness of the dangers of concussion.

A Lyttle Bit Special

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As published in InTouch Magazine (IRUPA), November edition.

As Ulster took to the field against Northampton in their last pre-season fixture, one name was at the tip of everybody’s tongue. Charles Piutau took up his position at fullback and duly whetted the appetite for the season ahead with some nice touches and electric breaks. But while it was a promising start for the All Black, it was the performance of a young winger from Donaghcloney that intrigued the Ulster faithful.

On his first start at the Kingspan stadium, Rob Lyttle’s first piece of action was a delightful sidestep and offload to his Kiwi colleague. Within a few moments Lyttle was demonstrating his defensive prowess, while it was his pass that put Louis Ludik away for the game’s first try. As the youngster sized up the subsequent conversion, Dan Tuohy, commentating for Ulster Rugby remarked that he “didn’t know he [Lyttle] could kick,” to which Tommy Bowe replied: “that boy can do everything.”

Not even a first senior appearance in the opening round of the Guinness Pro12 appeared to faze the youngster. Amidst all the fanfare surrounding Ruen Pienaar, Lyttle emerged from the bench as an early replacement for Craig Gilroy to seize another chance in the senior side with aplomb. In claiming two tries, Lyttle inspired Ulster to a 29-8 victory over Newport Gwent Dragons. Lyttle has since featured in all of Ulster’s Pro12 games to date.

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A former student of Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Lyttle made the controversial decision to move to fierce rivals Methodist College Belfast for his final year of school in 2015. As fate would have it, RBAI ultimately prevailed that year but Lyttle’s star was already on the rise. Progressing through the underage representative ranks, the youngster was inevitably picked up by the Ulster Academy.

At just 18, Lyttle featured prominently in the British and Irish Cup for Ulster ‘A’ last year. Despite his tender years, the quality of his performances saw him drafted in as the 24th man for the Pro12 on several occasions. He was simultaneously to the fore as Queen’s University sought promotion from Division 2A of the Ulster Bank League. Given his form, Lyttle was naturally disappointed not to make the U20 Junior World Championship panel in June. However, the Irish 7’s Development squad duly came calling.

With the likes of Piutau, Bowe, Ludik, Gilroy, Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble, Stuart Olding and Jacob Stockdale all potentially vying for places in the back three, Lyttle faces a stern challenge to become further established at Ulster. But after such a blistering start, he has certainly made his mark.

Anthony Foley 1973-2016

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As published in InTouch Magazine (IRUPA), November edition.

When Anthony Foley raised the Heineken Cup aloft in 2006, few in Irish rugby begrudged him of his special task. Munster were finally the European champions – a victory made all the sweeter because it was so hard gained. Such was the enormous outburst of emotion on that day that for a little while, especially for those outside of the Pale, the realities of life seemed not to matter.

No doubt many decent rugby men and women dipped into their imaginations in recent weeks and said that they were there. And they were.

They may have been away down in Ventry where the football fields were empty or taking a break from setting the spuds in Carrigaline – but they were all in Cardiff as Axel led Munster to belated glory.

Television cameras were scarce when Anthony Foley first set off on an odyssey with Munster in 1995. The back rower was part of an exceptionally strong side of part-timers competing in their first ever European Cup fixture and duly dispatching of a professional Swansea unit, yet he could have walked down many a street in the province without being recognised.

But as he departed this field of play on October 16th, an entire nation stood shoulder to shoulder to salute one of the great High Kings of Ireland.

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Trawling through archival footage of the great man’s feats, one might easily assume that his bow came just a fortnight after Munster sidestepped between mythology and fact by conquering the All Black’s and spawning a rugby religion. While 350,000 have also hinted at being in Thomond that day, Anthony’s father Brendan can justifiably claim to being one of them. Munster then, was in the Foley blood.

Throughout his childhood, Foley was steeped in the Munster way of life and its cultural quirks. Some say he was christened in the red garb. Taking to the field on that unremarkable Wednesday evening in November 1995, Foley fulfilled a lifetime ambition and embarked on a mission that would see Munster rise from tales of folklore into a formidable rugby power.

Upon the retirement of the IRUPA Hall of Fame inductee in 2008, the landscape of the game in Ireland had changed dramatically. Yet while money, stardom and success had burrowed into focus, Foley retained an innate understanding of what it was to play for club and country. Having emerged at a time of great uncertainty, he led them both to unprecedented heights and paved the way for those who were to follow. In so doing, he represented a tangible and spiritual link between a rich past and an even richer present.

Surrounded by supreme physical specimens towards the latter stages of his career, Foley appeared to have quantum leaped out of a bygone era (“Domino’s offered free pizza to whoever scored first in the new Thomond Park… Foley got a hat-trick,” recalls Keith Wood). But what he may have lacked in athleticism, he made up for with an awesome rugby brain and a motivation borne out of an undying love for his team, be they in red, green or blue.

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When Foley first togged out on the international stage, his experience contrasted starkly with that of his time with Shannon. Despite scoring a memorable try against England on his debut, Ireland clearly lacked a unity of purpose and retained a sense of barbarism that would struggle to survive in the encroaching professional era. Ten years and 62 caps later, Foley took his leave of a side that was primed for Grand Slam glory.

But while we will always be able to reflect on Axel’s myriad of accomplishments from the base of a scrum and lasting impact on the game at large, it was as a human being that he transcended the rugby community in Ireland. Liked by all, followed by many, his twinkling eyes and glowing smile touched many lives.

If there is any solace to be found amidst this tragedy it is that Anthony Foley died carrying out the duty that he was born to serve. He was the heart and soul of Munster rugby, and in that guise he will always remain.

Heroes get remembered. Legends never die.

Up for the Fight

As published on PunditArena

As Tommy Bowe battled his way back from a knee injury he sustained whilst playing against Argentina in last year’s Rugby World Cup, there were times during his rehabilitation that made him think that he had played his last game of rugby. Having picked up four serious injuries in consecutive seasons, Bowe has endured a luckless second stint with his home province.

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Speaking at the Ulster Public Panel Discussion as part of IRUPA’s Tackle Your Feelings campaign, in partnership with Zurich, the Irish winger admitted that having spent so much time on the sidelines, it’s hard not to question whether he would ever get back on the pitch.

“I’ve chatted with Stephen Ferris and Felix Jones about when you’re told that it’s not going to get any better and that’s always the fear. That’s what keeps you up at night.”

Having undergone kidney surgery just prior to his return to Ulster in 2012, Bowe was then dealt a further blow when he picked up a significant knee injury in December of the same year. While Bowe returned to fitness in time to travel with the Lions to Australia the following summer, a broken hand threatened to rule him out of the series. A groin injury sustained in the narrow defeat to New Zealand then forced him to miss the entirety of the 2014 Six Nations.

“This is my 13th season in professional rugby and I’ve found that mental health has become a huge area of concern in sport. Throughout my career I’ve found it difficult to deal with injury, but it’s equally tough when you are dropped or have a bad game.

“The mental side of sport is so huge nowadays, especially as you’re trying to get the best out of people. A lot of it is about being able to perform under pressure in some big, big games but with that come the highs and the lows. It’s important to work at trying to keep yourself on a level playing field, so that you’d don’t go too high when things are going great and you don’t go too low at the other end.”

Also speaking on the evening were IRUPA CEO Omar Hassanein, Dr. Eddie Murphy, Irish Women’s Sevens International Hannah Tyrrell and former Ulster fullback Bryn Cunningham, who was forced to retire early from the game.

Given the macho perception of the sport, people find it difficult to imagine the players dealing with little more than the bumps and bruises. The panel therefore explored the importance of mental wellbeing and how Ireland needs to be more proactive in resolving emotional challenges before they escalate into a crisis. The discussions were another step towards achieving the vision of a society that embraces emotional vulnerability.

“When I was a teenager, I struggled with my own self-confidence,” Tyrrell admits. “I had low self-esteem and a poor body image. I just viewed myself negatively in every aspect. I developed an eating disorder. For some reason I felt that if I were skinnier or prettier, people might like me, or I might perform better in school or in sport.

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A talented soccer player, Tyrrell turned her attentions to Gaelic Football when the Dublin U14 management came calling. Thereafter she progressed through the ranks to the senior side, winning several All-Ireland titles along the way. But beneath her sporting glory, Tyrrell was facing up to a greater challenge.

“I wasn’t very good at communicating my feelings,” Tyrrell explains. “I took everything on myself and in time I began to restrict my food intake, binging and purging before I began to self-harm.”

Having sought help, rugby provided Tyrrell with an outlet to grow, develop and indeed take stock of her experiences.

“I took up rugby in 2013 just after the women had won the Grand Slam. As I was very sporty and ambitious, it was always something that I thought I’d love to try. I was just coming out of my recovery and so I needed it to keep me on the right track and provide another goal to focus on. Rugby aside, the camaraderie I’ve enjoyed and the friends I’ve met means it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

“I’m very thankful I went to rugby training that evening.”