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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A Silver Lining

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

Annalise Murphy didn’t know whether to laugh or cry after banishing the pain of missing out on a medal at London 2012 by claiming silver in the final race of the women’s Laser Radial in Rio last August. Growing up in an avid sailing home, an Olympic medal was always Murphy’s ultimate dream.

To an extent, IRUPA has accompanied her on that journey to the podium, with Dr. Kate Kirby at her side in her role as a sports psychologist. “My time with Annalise actually stretches back to 2005 when she was identified as a Development Athlete, so that medal was the culmination of over 10 years work,” Kate informs us while speaking at Huddle Dublin at the Aviva on September 29th. “But she was so driven in her own right that it turned out to be one the easiest jobs I’ve ever done!”

Joining the IRUPA team in October 2012, Kate had already gained extensive experience in a variety of fields. Having attained both an MSc and PhD in sports psychology, she has provided consultancy services for a number of sporting bodies including the Irish Olympic Sailing and Modern Pentathlon squads. Her work with IRUPA has primarily seen her work with the Irish Women’s Sevens squad in a player development capacity.

“Since I first joined IRUPA, it is clear that the organisation has taken much more of a foothold in the game. We have much more of an influence and are held in higher esteem. I would put this down to two things: visibility and manpower. When I started out we offered general services but now we can give the individual greater attention.”

“A big part of our role,” Kate continues, “is helping a retiring player to transition out of his or her rugby career. Unfortunately we can’t prevent the fall, but we can help to soften the landing quite significantly. It is therefore so important that players take the time to engage with us. To provide the best service possible we need to get a feel for them as people with their own character, passions and goals.”

“In the past the most difficult part has been trying to secure time in front of the players. We had no allotted schedule space and had to work around their diaries. With all their on-field training, gym work, physio sessions and team meetings, we had to try and squeeze in where possible. But with the work that we have been doing, I think the provinces are really seeing the fruits of our efforts and they facilitate us wherever possible.”

Working with an Olympic athlete however has brought different challenges to the table. “In IRUPA, much of our work is of an off-field dimension in that we help to develop the players from an educational and career perspective. With Annalise, it was a very hands-on, results based experience. In the beginning we had to work on her all-round skills, from how she packed her bag to how she managed her logistics. We did everything in our power in an effort to help maximise her performance levels. But as she matured and grew into the sport, the work changed. We then became more focused on her mental skills and the consistency of her racing.”

Having been at London 2012, Kate had acquired the requisite knowledge base to assist the 25 year-old manage her Olympic experience. “While she performed well in London, our work in the interim was about developing greater self-awareness and exploring how she responds in certain situations. We had established our working environment but she would be the first to admit that she became frustrated by it and drifted. In Rio she appreciated what she had to do and she got on with it.”

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“Before we made the trip out there we reflected on London, the successes and mistakes. It was clear that whatever framework we established would be crucial to achieving her goal. For instance, I stayed with Annalise in an apartment nearby the sailing centre. In London we didn’t spend as much time together and as a result our work became a bit rushed. Furthermore, Rory Fitzpatrick, her coach, lived elsewhere. This was a deliberate move designed to promote fresher interaction.”

Any success is grounded upon strong mental preparation and Murphy, with Kate by her side, perfected her approach to Rio 2016. To bounce back from such disappointment and spend the next four years planning to put things right takes an enormous amount of dedication and drive. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but as Murphy crossed the finish line every sacrifice she had made along the way became worthwhile.

 

 

 

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.

Next Step Prep

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

Despite just turning 30 years of age during the summer, it seems as though Fergus McFadden has been on the Irish rugby scene for quite some time. Although there remains plenty of unfinished business, the Irish international winger is mindful of the fact that at its height, a rugby career will only span a limited period of time. While the game remains his priority, McFadden has also kept an eye on his future. To that end he has recently completed a Diploma in Marketing, Sales and PR from Griffith College, Dublin.

It’s not McFadden’s first college experience. Notwithstanding his key-role alongside Rob Kearney as Clongowes Wood College made their way to the Leinster Schools’ Senior Cup final in 2004, McFadden could do little to prevent an early exit the following year as his team crashed out at the first hurdle. However, such was his growing repute in the game that UCD came calling with the offer of a scholarship.

It was whilst studying economics and geography at Belfield, that McFadden’s rugby career began to blossom. “I was playing well with UCD and got picked up by Leinster but I began to find it hard to fit in training and lectures and I tended to let the latter slide. UCD did all that they could to try and accommodate me but as far as I was concerned, I had a good chance of making it in the game so something had to give.”

Having opted to leave his studies to one side, McFadden concentrated on his increasing presence in the Leinster squad – a decision that has led to several European and domestic titles in addition to 32 international caps. There should be plenty more to come, but given the unpredictable nature of the professional game, nobody knows what lies around the corner.

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As Earl Monroe, a member of the NBA Hall of Fame, once stated: “Sport is the only profession I know that when you retire, you have to go to work.” Accordingly, one of the main functions of IRUPA’s Player Development Programme is to encourage players to recognise the importance of dual career preparation. Through this system, players have been able to explore the options available to them, whether that might be in the form of trades and skills or short professional qualifications.

“Sales was always an area that I had an interest in and wanted to develop” McFadden stresses. “But with my Leinster commitments taking up most of the day I was never in a position to focus on college as a normal student. IRUPA knew that I wanted to press on with my studies so they put me in contact with Eilis O’Leary in Griffith College.”

The reality of rugby training and match schedules can make it difficult for players to attend lectures and complete assignments, yet they are becoming increasingly aware of their responsibility to themselves: learning represents a lifelong investment. But while education at Griffith College is of the utmost importance, they have been cognisant of a professional rugby player’s unique circumstances.

“Of course sport is the priority,” Eilis O’Leary admits. “These people have a commitment that goes beyond the careers of our typical part-time students. Many have dedicated their young lives to their sport. We try to encourage them to find a balance. Once they are able to manage their time and set out a plan with reasonable goals then there’s no reason for them not to have a positive learning experience with us.”

McFadden was particularly complimentary of Griffith College. “The staff couldn’t have been more accommodating. Eilis as our co-ordinator was especially helpful. I did the course on a part-time basis, which sat well with my schedule. There was the inevitable conflict but Eilis did everything she could to support us. Sean Cronin and Sean O’Brien were enrolled at the same time and when our exams clashed with a game at the of the year she was able to facilitate us.”

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As most players will have pursued their careers vigorously, few will have given their education much thought. “They are so preoccupied by their sport, that professional sportspeople often don’t know what it is they want to do beyond their career,” O’Leary acknowledges. “We’ve found that while many of them would appear to be supremely confident and capable individuals, they can find the classroom overwhelming and experience difficulty in transitioning into education. We show them that they are very attractive employees with many transferable skills. Afterall, they are driven and committed team players.”

Therefore, alongside IRUPA and the Institute of Sport, Griffith College has developed a programme that is specifically tailored to existing playing careers. The Certificate in Dual Career Development (Sport) has been purposely designed to address the needs of high-performance athletes in areas of professional development and transition management. “By the end of term they show themselves to be accomplished students,” O’Leary adds.

For more information on the Certificate in Dual Career Development (Sport) or for any further information on courses being offered by Griffith College please contact Eilis O’Leary: eilis.oleary@griffith.ie.

Out of Thin Air

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Based in Greystones, Co. Wicklow, Temple Carrig first opened its doors in September 2014. Despite enrolling 132 new students in its first year and conducting classes in a prefab building, few would have anticipated the impact that they have made on the Leinster Schools’ rugby scene.

While many sports and activities feature on the schools extra-curricular programme, such was the interest in rugby that it was soon apparent that it would take up greater resources. Mark Crean, the gamesmaster at Temple Carrig, was therefore faced with the daunting task of ensuring everything was in place to guarantee a positive rugby experience for a plethora of new students and rugby enthusiasts.

While many have bemoaned the diminished relevance of the club game in recent times, the tragic passing of Anthony Foley has shown that, despite the proliferation of wealth on a professional level, club rugby remains at the core of the identity of Irish rugby. The way in which Shannon RFC have marked the passing of one of their favourite sons has in many ways emboldened the club scene once again.

Gresytones RFC has been hugely influential in establishing a strong rugby base at Temple Carrig. Upon the opening of the school, a close link was established with the local club, which has since gone beyond the call of duty through the provision of gear, facilities and voluntary coaches. Crucially, the pupils have responded with enormous positivity to the work and faith that has been invested in them. Just as William Webb Ellis did in 1823, the students of Temple Carrig picked up the ball and ran with it in 2014 – they continue to do so.

“It all happened very quickly,” admits Mark Crean. “The first ever game for the school came against Pres. Bray within a few weeks of our opening. The kids enjoyed it and so we pulled a full calendar of fixtures together. We now play games against all the major rugby-playing schools across Leinster and Northern Ireland.”

“In our first year we managed to field two competitive teams,” Crean adds. “Given that we have now started our third year, we have expanded that number to six boys teams in the school. But that’s only the half of it! We also have a girls side that has contested several tournaments and blitz festivals throughout the past few years.”

Already competing in Division 1A (Section B) at Junior level, Crean and his coaching team consisting of Henry Hurley, Gabán Ó’Briain, Philip Kinsella, Peter Wallace, Adam Rice, John Simpson and John McGuinness have pulled off something quite remarkable in just two short years. “It has also been of enormous benefit to have Alan Cox, our Headmaster, backing us in our efforts. He is sports mad which always helps!”

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Although the opening fixtures of the Junior season have resulted in losses to both Gonzaga and Castleknock College, the Temple Carrig players are determined to show what they are capable of as the season progresses. While such schools are steeped in history and the traditions of the game, Temple Carrig continues to carve out its own character. An impending trip to Souston in the southwest of France will go some way to creating a team bond that is integral to a successful and enjoyable rugby environment. All 46 players on the Junior panel will return to Greystones as a stronger unit, ready to take on the likes of Pres. Bray, Newbridge and Wesley College.

Notwithstanding the disappointment of losing their opening fixtures of the campaign, the mere fact that Temple Carrig are competing at this level is a credit to the structures that have been put in place at the Wicklow school.

“All of the coaching in school is voluntary,” Crean asserts. “We are very lucky with the staff that we have in place, all of whom give a great deal of their own time to help the grow the game in Temple Carrig and promote the values of the sport amongst our pupils.”

Unquestionably, the goal for Temple Carrig in the coming years will be to impose themselves on the Senior rugby grade. In this light they can take great heart and encouragement from the achievements of St. Fintan’s High School in Sutton. The school can already count several domestic titles amongst its achievements, while a number of past-pupils have earned representative honours. Reflecting on such success, Rob Forbes claimed “mighty oaks from little acorns grow.” Mark Crean and all at Temple Carrig will hope that their own roots take a similar path.

Derby Day

As published on PunditArena

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Prior to the introduction of the Celtic League in 2001, interprovincial clashes mattered little to those other than the hardened supporter. Played in the depths of winter, not even those charged with covering the sport bothered to give the fixtures due attention.

Given their ambivalence towards an ‘All-Ireland’ league, Ulster engaged in the series with added impetus, Munster and Leinster put up a token challenge, while Connacht’s endeavours were deemed largely irrelevant. Indeed, according to Edmund van Esbeck, the westerners only managed to claim 22 victories over their three rivals between 1946 and 1999.

Connacht’s recent resurgence however, embodied by their bonus point win over Pro12 leaders Ulster in October, ensures that the provincial weekend continues to provide all that a rugby fan desires.

Leinster 6-30 Munster

Heineken Cup Semi-Final, Lansdowne Road – 23 April 2006

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This was the one that broke new ground. Amidst all the fanfare surrounding Leinster’s heroics in Toulouse, it was Ronan O’Gara who led the nearly men of Munster into the Heineken Cup Final.

In the days leading up to the contest much was made of O’Gara’s impending rendezvous with the mercurial Argentine, Felipe Contepomi. However, buoyed by a sea of red, Munster targeted the hotheaded Puma while O’Gara handed-off Malcolm O’Kelly to sum up what was a miserable afternoon for Leinster.

Connacht 7-6 Leinster

Pro12, Sportground – 26 March 2016

Bundee Aki and Caolin Blade celebrate 26/3/2016

To many it was just a matter of time before Connacht slipped up in their quest for Pro12 glory. Despite an inauspicious start to their campaign, Leinster were a coming force again and expected to trail a blaze to the season’s end.

However, when Kieran Marmion stole over for an opportunistic try after 13minutes prompting a defensive masterclass by his Connacht side, suddenly the rugby world sat up and took notice.

Munster 16- 22 Ulster

Heineken Cup Quarter Final ,Thomond Park – 8 April 2012

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In what was the first meeting between the two sides in the Heineken Cup, Ulster became only the second side to come away from Thomond Park with a victory in 17 years.

Despite going behind early in the game, Munster controlled much of the fixture but weary legs proved to be the undoing of Paul O’Connell’s aging side and Ulster held on for a famous win.

 

Leinster 20-12 Ulster

Magners League, Lansdowne Road – 31 December 2006

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This was the afternoon when Brian O’Driscoll pulled off the original selfie. Making as if to pass to Denis Hickie on the wing, the Irish captain sensationally popped the ball over his teammates head and sailed past a floundering Tommy Bowe.

Losing 12-5 at half time, Leinster scores from Owen Finegan and Jamie Heaslip – the last try ever scored at the old Lansdowne Road – secured a satisfying comeback.

Munster 6-25 Leinster

Heineken Cup Semi-Final, Croke Park – 2 May 2009

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When Felipe Contepomi pulled up with injury, many Leinster fans looked on anxiously as a young pretender entered the fray.

But with Rocky Elsom to the fore, Leinster dominated their rivals in every aspect of the game, including from the pivot where Jonathon Sexton annonched himself on the European stage in kicking and steering his rampant teammates to a 25-6 victory.

Pat Lam helps his Players to Tackle Their Feelings

“People come down to the Sportsground and look at our bench. It’s filled with a management team that stretches the length of the dugout and beyond. They ask what role each person fulfils. I agree with them in saying that if I was just coaching a rugby team, you wouldn’t need all those people. In fact all you’d require is the head coach and a couple of assistants.

But, you see, it’s not just about the rugby…”

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When Pat Lam first toyed with the idea of donning a tracksuit and dishing out instruction, he approached Ian McGeechan his coach at Northampton, for some advice. The British and Irish Lions legend posed a simple question to his captain: “Pat, why do you want to coach?”

On Tuesday night the former Samoan international was speaking at the Connacht Rugby Public Discussion in the G Hotel, as part of IRUPA’s Tackle Your Feelings campaign, in partnership with Zurich. The product of several years of research, IRUPA and Zurich’s initiative has given professional players the platform to engage and address their mental well-being.

Lam would have been particularly impressed by the maturity of one of his own charges as he articulated the difficulties he faced as a youngster growing up in New Zealand. Jake Heenan spoke candidly about losing his way as a teenager including bouts of anti-social behaviour that ultimately led to him being kicked out of his home.

While rugby offered the former captain of the All Blacks’ U-20 side a pathway out of trouble, Lam presented the 24-year-old with an opportunity to leave his past behind and join an intriguing project in the west of Ireland. Having joined in May 2013, Heenan can now set his sights on wearing the green of his adopted home on the international stage having qualified earlier this year.

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Heenan was joined on the panel by Dr. Eddie Murphy of RTÉ’s Operation Transformation, Connacht’s most capped player, Michael Swift, and Cathal Sheridan, the former Munster scrum half who has struggled with injury throughout his career.

“I try to ensure that any of my teams have all the tools required to survive and thrive both on the field of play and off it,” Lam continued.

“Often it is family that equips you with those tools and the best families are created by the best environments. I have tried to create something similar at Connacht. Many would agree that our team spirit is our biggest strength.”

In an effort to help foster that familial mentality, Lam has sought to have his players engage on a more wholesome level. While they think little of sweating blood for each other on match days, the tendency is for players to resile in their own bubble once the day’s work is complete. Lam has therefore reintroduced an old Connacht tradition whereby a player offers their own personal story to the group. This week it was the turn of Heenan.

Heenan’s story in particular will resonate with many young people throughout the country. Although he never suffered from any mental health condition, the player acknowledged his difficulties and demonstrated tremendous courage in coming forward from a world that espouses the macho ideal of mental and physical toughness.

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“The main feeling I had through this was fear, fear of the unknown, and anger, which was a direct result of being afraid.

“I think it’s important that everyone recognises that we all have our own problems and issues,” Heenan said.

It would appear then that, alongside the work of IRUPA, Pat Lam is helping people to realise their true potential.

“I see young people enter the game as rugby players, but I see them exit as better people.

“That’s the reason why I want to coach.”

Over the coming weeks IRUPA and Zurich will host further panel discussions at the Kingspan Stadium, Belfast on Tuesday October 4 and at Lansdowne Rugby Club, Dublin on Wednesday October 12.

To watch Jake’s video, and for more information on Tackle Your Feelings, click here.