Xavier High School Rugby Tour Ireland 2016

For almost 30 years now I have been conducting tours of Ireland & the UK for many different clients in both the corporate and leisure markets. The funny thing is that you never really forget the people you work with even though the times and dates tend to become somewhat fuzzy through the passage of time. That said, I don’t think I will forget too easily the past 10 days touring Ireland with Xavier High School Rugby teams from New York. We don’t tend to associate rugby so quickly with the US but what I’ve witnessed both on and off the field during this memorable trip will stay with me forever.

I was impressed with the way Xavier approached and prepared for this series of test matches in true typical American style with well established Irish teams. The old guard if you like. Based in Cork for the first 3 days of the tour, our first rugby experience was to attend the Guinness Pro 12 game between Munster and Zebre at Thomond Park in Limerick. Munster, odds on favorites did what was expected and saw off Zebre with out really having to apply typical Munster pressure. The Xavier boys enjoyed the experience immensely as for many of them they got to witness at first hand and for the first time in their short lives the levels of professionalism and skill that exists within the modern European game.

The next day it was down to business with two matches at the legendary Presentation College Brothers in Cork. Much to my surprise Xavier turned heads with their quick release passing and speed resulting in a draw and an impressive win. Keep in mind too, that these players were not used to playing on grass and many did not have the suitable foot ware for these alien conditions. Afterwards, there were speeches, photos and the exchanging of club memorabilia accompanied with some excellent home cooking which was scoffed down and enjoyed by one and all. That evening after dinner at our tour hotel it was off to witness Cork Constitution v Terenure College in the UBL division 1A where Cork Con recorded a fine win in tough conditions, collecting a valuable bonus point in the process ! Whilst in Cork we also managed to enlighten the boys and coaches to the wonderful history and culture of the city which included a visit to the magnificent Blarney Castle where all but a few lined up to kiss the famous stone of eloquence.

Day 4, a day of sightseeing, started in bright spring sunshine with a hearty Irish breakfast before departing to Galway via the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren National Park. Remember too that this was Easter Sunday, not just any Easter Sunday but the one that would mark the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Up-rising, the event that changed Irish history forever. The country was celebrating.

On arrival that afternoon in Galway the cultural capitol of Ireland, Irish Rugby Tours had an arranged training session with renowned Irish rugby coach Nigel Carolan who put the boys through their paces and was only too happy to share his knowledge and experience with them.

The next day we headed via Connemara to the beautiful village of Cong in county Mayo, the home of John Wayne and Maureen O Hares’ block buster movie “The Quiet Man”. I know the boys had no real knowledge of this movie but they were taken by the sheer beauty and charm of Cong. When we traveled onto the grounds of Ashford Castle they were blown away. As luck would have it Irish Rugby Tours had arranged for us to be accompanied by Brendan Flanagan who conducted a most informative tour of the Castle and Village. Brendan a local lawyer is also President of Ballinrobe Rugby Club which was the venue that afternoon for the next two test matches. Before we departed a wholesome lunch was served in Ryan’s Hotel in Cong. It was there we were joined by Xavier High’s most distinguished past pupil, teacher and coach Mike Tolkin who’s illustrious career has seen him reach the summit of world rugby as the former US head coach.

As our motor coach eased through the tight gap of the old gates to Ballinrobe Rugby Club you could almost taste the anticipation on board as the Xavier boys and coaches were now chomping at the bit to get on the field once more for their next challenge. To my great surprise Xavier swept Ballinrobe away in both games. Again quick hands, strong mauling, decisive turnovers were to rule the day although to offer some defense to Ballinrobe, the club had just won the Connacht Junior Cup Plate the day before and were most likely still in celebratory mode. That however, didn’t stop their wonderful hospitality afterwards as we all retreated to Costello’s Bar for pizza and refreshments which was of course accompanied with some humorous speeches and the exchanging of awards and memorabilia by both clubs.

On the morning of day 7 we departed Galway for Dublin, the final leg of the tour. That afternoon one of the highlights of this busy tour came in the form of the Gaelic Games Experience. This wonderful initiative is designed to introduce overseas visitors to Gaelic Football and the ancient Irish sport of Hurling. You could see how much the boys and coaches enjoyed not only having Gaelic Games explained to them but getting the chance to actually play the sport was so well received.

Standing on the sidelines at Na Fianna CLG and watching, I was very entertained to see players that grew up with American football, baseball and basketball strut their stuff in our Gaelic games. You could see how hard it was for some to resist moves that would not look out of place on the basketball court or American football field. When the final whistle blew the players simply did not want to stop, they loved it so much. That evening and the following morning there was more rugby coaching, this time with Tony Smeeth, Director of Rugby at Trinity College Dublin and long time friend to Irish Rugby Tours.

As part of keeping the balance right between rugby and sightseeing on day 8 we treated the players and coaches to a tour of the world famous Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Our luck was totally in as our stadium guide turned out to be none other than the famous “bagman” Paddy O’ Reilly affectionally known as “Rala” by friends and players. Coaches and players may come and go but Rala has been a constant in the Irish national set up for more than 20 years with many players describing him as being like a father figure to them during their time with the national squad. Rala had no problem sharing some of his greatest memories with the Xavier boys as he showed them around the Aviva with heart felt familiarity. Later that day everyone climbed aboard two WWII ducks for the Viking Splash Tour of Dublin which turned out to be a big hit as they hollered their way through the streets of the ancient Capitol.

Day 9. The big challenge ! Yes it was time to take on Blackrock College Dublin. Again two games were organized and everyone knew this was not going to be easy. This proved to be true as in both games Blackrock commanded a healthy lead early on. In fact they looked out of sight before Xavier eventually managed to put a score on the board. You could sense the relief when they did, at least the whitewash would be avoided. But heres the funny thing, Xavier really started to believe when they did score in both games and as they grew into the games they started to match Blackrock albeit a little too late to change the overall result. Now at least they know where the bar is set for future achievement. Before departing the players had the chance to mingle over lunch and formalities. You could see where distant friendships could evolve and the ever strengthening Irish American connection through the game of rugby.

With the rugby over for this tour everyone could relax and look forward to a good night out at the “Merry Plough Boys” Irish evening and dinner before spending the final day enjoying a tour of Croke Park the home of Gaelic Games, a visit to see The Book of Kells’ at Trinity College and the popular Guinness Brewery Storehouse tour. After dinner much fun was had back at our tour hotel as the players put on a show for the coaches and conducted a very entertaining kangaroo court.

Like I said at the beginning of this article I won’t forget this tour too easily. It was a great experience for me personally and I’m sure it will live long in the memories of the players and coaches of Xavier High School. It would be a fine tribute to the sport of rugby to think that the experience these young men enjoyed will go someways towards shaping their future careers and lives, be they sporting or otherwise. They did their school and the game proud, what more could we ask for.