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!”

 

 

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.

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.

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.”