AT the end of October, Carlow man, Des Kavanagh, was elected President of the Irish Rugby Football Union. It has been a remarkable journey for someone who grew up on the Pollerton Road and, by his own admission, never played competitive rugby.
Yet, from as early an age as he can remember, the game of rugby always held a fascination for him.
“My father was sports mad. He loved rugby.
“When Fred Cogley came on television for the Five Nations every year there was a Mr Williams who used to go around on a bike. We wouldn’t see him from one month to another but on the day of a Five Nations rugby international he would knock on the door, come in and watch the match with our family,” recalled Des.
The future IRFU President from Carlow was at those famous matches in Lansdowne Road during the troubles when Ireland played England twice in 1972 because Scotland and Wales opted not to come to Dublin. The Kavanagh’s had contacts which were of benefit on Five Nations weekend.
“My father, at one stage, worked in Oliver’s. Mr Oliver, on a few occasions, drove up to matches and my father and myself would be in the back seat. My father and myself got tickets to a number of games. If we didn’t go we would watch them on TV.”
Rugby at the Old Tennis Club
Des dabbled in rugby in his early teenage years when the rugby club shared dressing room facilities with the tennis club on the old Dublin Road, where the tennis club is now.
It was there Carlow’s dream of fielding underage rugby teams was born and a Carlow side took on High School in a challenge match. John Robbie, who went on to be capped nine times for Ireland and once for the Lions, played for the Dublin college that day. It is safe to say Carlow were pioneers in club underage rugby as, in the late sixties, underage rugby was only played in the elite schools throughout the 32 counties.
The Carlow starting fifteen (there were no subs) was picked (?) out of a hat but to this day no-one actually believes that. Des didn’t play in a 6-3 defeat (tries were only worth three points at the time) but he does remember training sessions when his legs were taken from him by another player who would go on to become President of County Carlow FC.
“Do you know who that guy was? He was a lot younger than me. Kennedy O’Brien. I don’t know how many times I would be flying but then I would be on the ground. He was something else. I was about thirteen at the time so he would have been only nine, even younger,” recalled Des.
His interest in rugby waned over the following years and his studies and work as a psychiatric took him to Dublin where he married Marie and they started a family.
“My wife liked two sports only. Rugby and Boxing. It was regular in our house that when rugby was on we would watch it so there was always an interest in rugby.”
They took the decision to move back to Carlow.
“The reason we moved back to Carlow, and we were very happy in Dublin, was to have space and to have dogs. We became the top winning kennel in Ireland with boxers. We would travel to dog shows in the UK, Northern Ireland and all over Ireland. Boxers were our speciality. It was something we both enjoyed.”
Des says it was this writer who prompted him to get involved with underage rugby in Carlow.
“When you asked me that day in the club I felt I wouldn’t know what to do. Then I saw you talking to Jack Chatten. He handed me a whistle and just told me to blow it now and again.”
It really helped that the three Kavanagh boys were mad into rugby.
Des recalls a young Barry Whyte telling him he didn’t know the laws of the game.
“In those days I would have thought laws were in terms of the Gardaí. I have to admit, he was completely right.”
If he was to stay in rugby Des needed to do something else instead of training players and refereeing. Help was on hand.
“After my experience with Barry Whyte I told Jack Chatten I would do anything but I wouldn’t do coaching. Then Derek Harte approached me, brought me to meetings and we went to a Leinster Youth AGM.
“We were also on a tour to England and Derek sat in beside me on the bus. He told Des it was time he got more involved. That is how he ended up as Youth Coordinator. It was an experience he totally enjoyed. Back in Carlow he worked with the underage coaches.
“Two of the people I first became involved in were Martin Dunphy and Brian Carbery who were coaching a team Wesleigh (his son) was involved on. Derek Harte, Charlie O’Malley and Paddy Munnelly were involved with teams Graham (his son) was involved in. Then Des Murphy got involved.”
That group of coaches raised standards and Carlow travelled to many parts of the country which they had never been before.
“We were looking for games against the best teams in Ireland. We arranged games against Corinthians in Connacht and ended up playing them in the All-Ireland final. We won under 16 and 18s cups around that time.”
President of Leinster
Everything seemed to happen so quickly for Des. He was President of Co. Carlow in the 2000-01 season when the club was going well in the All-Ireland league. He also served as Leinster Branch Secretary from 2009 to 2012.
His involvement with Leinster came at a time when Munster were competing for and winning Heineken Cups. From a Leinster point of view, it was the ultimate put-down when they were hammered 30-6 in the semi-final in a sea of red at Lansdowne Road in 2006. Des remembers the insults the Leinster players had to endure.
“The humiliation was horrendous. The description of the lads as lady-boys. The fact there was a mess up of Felix Contepomi’s registration. Munster were teasing us about that as well. Anything we could be teased about, we were being teased.
“People had got into the habit of going down to Thomand Park for the big games. I was at the guest of the Old Belvedere dinner and I remember one of the main sponsors in a quite distinct Dublin accent saying he would never support Leinster. That the Munster lads would fight until their last drop of blood was gone.
“I said to him. You don’t know Sean O’Brien. I got quite angry. I remember our Secretary, Dorothy Collins, had to put her hand on my hand telling me not to mind.
From that fateful day in 2006 a European rugby force emerged. In the 2008/’09 season, with Des as President of the Leinster Branch, the Blues got their revenge on Munster in a Heineken Cup semi-final in Croke Park when winning handily enough on a 25-6 scoreline. They went on to lift their first Heineken Cup by beating Leicester Tigers in the final, with Des as provincial President.
The Leinster Academy in UCD took shape and for a spell
Des felt the facilities the Leinster players had were better than the Irish set-up.
“I would imagine that when our players were moving from Leinster to Ireland they were moving backways in terms of facilities. Now, when you walk into Abbotstown since its completion you see a three quarters pitch completely under cover so that hail, rain or snow the Irish team can train with kicking practice possible.”
Joining the IRFU
As Leinster were impressing in Europe, the former Carlow President was getting favourable comments in the corridors of power of Leinster and Irish rugby.
He was approached by someone in the IRFU, he won’t reveal who he had the conversation with but it went something like this.
“He asked me had I given any thought of coming on to the IRFU.
“I said no, I haven’t. Not at all.
“He said to me you should.
“How could I ever go on to the IRFU. I have never played the game.
“That’s not a problem,” was the reply.
“No barriers. We are interested in the skills you would bring in. If you can bring in those skills and contribute that is all we want.”
Des went home and talked to Marie about it. She gave him the thumbs up.
Nothing was decided at that point. As a representative for the province Des still had to put himself forward for election.
“The one thing I was good at from my union days was the politics of getting elected. Canvassing. I was able to identify I had different support from different areas. Junior (rugby). Schools and youths because of my underage involvement. Friendships with other people such as Louis Magee in Bective,” he recalled.
Serving the IRFU
He was elected and in political terms over the following years he held on to his seat. He admits he worked hard.
“I served on the IRFU rugby committee. I was Chairman of the All-Ireland junior committee, the youths committee for a couple of years. Chairman of the Clubs of Volunteers. That was set up to see what the IRFU could best do for clubs. One of the big things we had was sixty policy documents which clubs could access. Things such as developing your clubhouse, developing your pitches, your medical room, your gym. Whatever it was there was policies.
“We worked on how we could help clubs to help themselves. We have seen how some clubs have been hugely successful in taking advice. There are supports available within the IRFU. For example how does a club access money from local authorities and sports grants. There is a legal department in the IRFU for clubs who are going through something like conveyancing.”
Des immersed himself in many projects. All with a view of reaching out to everyone who had even the slightest interest in the game.
His student days in St Ita’s Hospital prepared him well.
“I really enjoyed my years in Portrane. The training I got as a psychiatric nurse helped me a lot. Not just in coping with things and working with help. You had to learn to work hard. If you didn’t work hard, you weren’t respected. It gave me a strong work ethic.”
The future IRFU President recalls a meeting chaired by Chief Executive, Philip Browne who urged the IRFU to re-examine their values.
“He talked about drugs in sport, supplements, about inclusivity (disability was part of it.),” recalled Des.
“We had a day where we looked at what our values were. Respect, inclusion, fun, integrity. Under the headings of our values we wanted to broaden the remit of the IRFU in terms of embracing the entire community. Last year (2019) there were teams from all over the world who came to Dublin to play in the Union Cup. The Union Cup was for gay rugby players. It was a huge event. It was part of the inclusivity.
“Women’s rugby started years ago. They were to one side of the IRFU,” noted Des.
“Then they were a part of the IRFU. Now they are a big part. We had to ensure we didn’t just have a type of respect for women’s rugby but had a real engagement. We worked with clubs around the country to encourage as much involvement as possible at underage level.”
Interestingly Des quoted the former Carlow President who also captained Bective Rangers to a senior cup victory in the fifties.
“I remember Tom O’Brien would say Carlow was a great community club. It is a line I have used over the years in speeches I made. What I am currently saying now we are truly community because we include everyone.”
Des also chaired a committee who explored how players with disabilities could play rugby.
“I wanted to quantify how there was a determination to make this work as opposed to doing something for the image. I discovered there was a huge commitment to disability rugby. At the time we had no idea what we were opening up to. It took off.
“We had a very dynamic committee. We got people with skills in different areas. Nowadays we have a lot of clubs who have a disability section. It has evolved in different ways. Our aim was to open up rugby to every boy and girl no matter what their disability was.
Des brought a group to Belfast to a disability rugby festival where over 42 teams were playing. He was bowled over by it.
“I recall one person with a serious disability who was being wheeled in a wheelchair. They would throw the ball into a wheelchair. Someone would push the wheelchair and that person would throw the ball out.”
The visiting group were fascinated by the inclusive approach adopted.
“Some of the clubs who were involved with disability rugby found a new form of rugby in mixed ability. Mixed ability where you could have fifteen a side, play under normal rules where half the team, could be able bodied and half could have disabilities. Sunday’s Well were one of the pioneers of this.”
Disability rugby is now prospering.
“I watched a game in Cork a few years ago between Sunday’s Well and a team from Wales. Some of the players I watched that day could easily play at J1 and J2 level, they were that strong,” recalled Des.
Some years ago the IRFU launched the Team of Us concept.
“The Team of Us is about inclusivity, there is a place in the game for the big and the small, the fat and the fast, there is a place in the game for disabilities, there is a place in the game for women girls, there is a place in the game for LGBT. There are no boundaries that says you can’t come in,” explained Des.
Challenges facing the IRFU
Despite his positivity, Des says the IRFU have major issues to deal with too.
Thirty years ago the likes of Carlow rugby club could field five adult teams and had what was jokingly called a Cadaver’s side. It was a team for players aged over fifty. Dublin teams could also field as many as nine teams on a given weekend. Now Carlow are lucky to field two teams. For a Metropolitan club to have nine adult teams is a pipe-dream. Now rugby followers, instead of playing on the lower teams in the clubs, get their rugby fixes in pubs and on their couches on PRO 14 and European Rugby days and evenings. Leinster can fill the Aviva on a given day but not always. Even though the IRFU are reaching out into the community less people are playing rugby than, say, thirty years ago. Des doesn’t disagree.
“That is right in terms of that description. There was a huge problem throughout the world. In Australia there is a huge problem in relation to numbers playing the game.
“What I am going to say to you in terms of the evolution of people we are seeing changes which are impacting on the game. If you go back to the time County Carlow went up to AIL, we would regularly have players who were in their thirties. The average age of the player today is probably in the late twenties.
Today we are finding less and less players going on after their mid-twenties. We find a lot of players drop out or discontinue. There are a variety of reasons.,” admits the IRFU President.
Now the Covid pandemic is throwing down unimaginable challenges.
Kavanagh says the Treasurer’s Report was a big talking point at the AGM. There are no gate receipts and no-one has any idea when crowds will be allowed back into stadiums. There is a domino effect in play here.
“The provinces are funded and supported by the IRFU and when the provinces get into financial trouble at that point the IRFU have to come in and bail them out. Effectively, all the provinces have been given extra funding because of the pandemic. That has had huge impact on unions finances,” says Des.
Then there is the new President’s own personal disappointment in a year which should have been a sporting highlight for him.
“I would normally have had dinner that night (when he was elected on 23 October) with the committee members and with the previous Presidents. I would have stayed overnight in Dublin and gone to the Six Nations International against Italy. We would have had a pre-match lunch. I would have gone out for the team photograph on the day befpre. That is all gone.
“It is a very deflating task. The normal experiences for the President have been stolen by Covid_19. My colleague in England, Jeff Blackett. I was speaking to him a few months ago and he said, Des, we could be the only two Presidents in the history of our countries never to attend an international match.”
Having said all that, Des has always been down to earth and is rolling with the punches.
“Now as President of the IRFU I am supposed to go as a guest of the Lions next year. When you look at what my experience will be as President compared to other Presidents over the years I am in the basement.
“Yet when you look at other people’s problems in the world and what Covid has brought my issues hardly matter at all,” he acknowledges.
A Sense of Pride
Nonetheless, Des cannot but be proud of what he has achieved. Perhaps there are times he must sit at home and pinch himself. At the moment he has plenty of time on his hands.
No doubt his election has broken the mound and smashed any lingering suggestions that rugby is for the elite and the upper classes.
“There is a huge sense of pride. You can’t help but be proud. I have come through Leinster as a representative of youths. Not just the Carlow representative. I would be the first person from youth rugby to become President. That is a great honour. The first president from County Carlow. A huge honour.
“From a family point of view who have been involved with rugby since the kids were young it is a huge honour.”
This article, by Kieran Murphy, originally appeared in the Fireside Companion magazine.