Speech by President Michael D. Higgins, at a reception for the Men’s Senior Irish rugby team Áras an Uachtaráin Wednesday, 2nd May, 2018
Mar thús is mian liom fíorchaoin fáile a fhearadh roimh laochra na Caithréime Móire, agus iad siúd a chuidigh leo, chuig Áras an Uachtaráin inniu.
May I thank all of the heroes of Irish Rugby and those who support them for joining us this evening.
May I also thank, with great pleasure, Eimear Kenny and Róisín Murphy, the two wonderful harpists here this evening and our first aiders from Civil Defence – though I am sincerely hoping that none of you will have need of them this evening.
I am delighted to welcome you all to Áras an Uachtaráin to honour your magnificent achievement in winning the greatest prize in European rugby, an Caithréime Mhór, the Grand Slam.
When I say the greatest prize in European Rugby, I am not seeking to provoke a disputation on that topic, I am of course talking about international rugby. I am sure you will all have your own views on how the Champions Cup compares for greatness, and that might also depend on whether or not you will be visiting the Basque country in the near future….. But today we put provincial differences aside and celebrate your togetherness and your spectacular performance in representing Ireland in this year’s Six Nations competition.
Though I often meet you before the big matches I know that on those occasions many of you have other things on your mind. The weather also conspired against us meeting on your return from London so today is a deferred opportunity to gather together in more relaxed circumstances, so that I, mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, as President of Ireland, can personally salute and congratulate the players, the management and support team, and also acknowledge the contribution of the partners, parents, family and friends, teachers and mentors who helped bring all of you to international rugby and your victory this year in the Six Nations.
Though my Presidential duties at home prevented my attendance at that match in Twickenham on St. Patrick’s Day, I, like millions here at home and around the world, kept a keen eye on events in London. Much like that wonderful day in Cardiff in March 2009, your victory added greatly to our national celebrations and made that day truly unforgettable.
Such was the professionalism, skill and tactical acuity demonstrated throughout the championship that it was difficult, momentarily, to recall that only twice before had the men’s national rugby team completed the clean sweep in the championship. It is a truly monumental achievement, accomplished against some of the finest teams in the world rugby.
It is also a testament to what has been, and continues to be, a golden era of Irish rugby. In recent years, the men’s international team and the four provinces have been delighting us with world class performances and victories in international and club competitions. The women’s senior team completed their Grand Slam in 2013 and it is heartening to see women’s rugby growing in popularity.
It was only a year and a half ago, on a November evening in Chicago, that a relentless and heroic Irish performance ended a seemingly unbeatable All Black’s winning streak and secured our first victory in the 111 year history of competitive international rugby between our two countries.
The appearance of two Irish provinces in last weekend’s Champions Cup semi-finals and Leinster’s upcoming date with Johnny Sexton’s old friends, Racing 92, in Bilbao is a reminder of the great success of the provinces.
It is a credit to the IRFU’s organisation of the game in Ireland, that it has created the structures and supports in which a culture of success and achievement has emerged at the professional level of the sport.
Many younger supporters have become used to the recent success, but for many who have been fans of Irish rugby for many years remember when the good years seemed few and far between. For us, St. Patrick’s Day was truly a day to relish and remember.
All 32 counties and millions of Irish people around the world were riveted to their screens for each of Ireland’s five matches – we were all hoping and willing you on, impressed not only by your skill and strength, the result of many hours of disciplined and diligent training, but by the creativity and genius on display.
Again and again, we saw the senior players on the squad stepping up and providing extraordinary and inspirational leadership, particularly in the battles against Wales and France. Rory Best, as captain, set the tone and so many of you followed his lead. Molaim sibh.
We also witnessed the emergence of representatives of a new generation, whose entry into senior international rugby was undertaken with such panache and style, some even breaking new records for try-scoring. For those younger players here today, St. Patrick’s Day may have brought your first taste of international success, but for others, it is an addition to a career replete with accolades. Indeed, Rob Kearney and Rory Best now share the distinction of winning two Grand Slams.
I also want to mention Peter O’Mahony and salute his act of exceptional kindness in giving his Grand Slam medal to a young Ireland fan in Twickenham that day. I know how appreciative you are, as a team, of the support you get from the Irish Public and how you all show that by making yourselves available to supporters and to the public in your everyday lives.
Peter’s act was symbolic perhaps of how we can use our positions in public life to acknowledge our dependence on each other, and through such acts, how we can inspire consideration, empathy and, that perhaps old-fashioned, but perfect word - kindness to those around us.
The tenacity and resilience of the whole team when faced with adversity was something to behold – I think the whole nation held its breath through 41 phases and the flight of a ball which seemed to take an eternity to drop over a Parisian crossbar.
The results of the games reflect the reserves of great courage and energy required. I refer to Scotland, who proved themselves such worthy and determined opponents, and of a bonus point taken in a masterclass of fluid and graceful rugby. I recall that match against Wales in Dublin, when that new generation of which I spoke proved their fortitude and kept their cool under enormous pressure from perhaps our most skilled rivals.
To a man, all of you on the Ireland squad played your part in delivering the extraordinary accomplishment of the Grand Slam in this year’s Championship. Your hard work and your perseverance has brought you to the summit of sporting success. Players from all four provinces contributing to a remarkable national feat.
I know that none of this could have been achieved without those you rely on for support, those who have been beside you and behind you from your earliest days, willing you to carry on when times were tough and sharing in the joy of your successes when times were good.
Each player depends on those closest to them, personally and in sport, to help them through their preparations, and we extend our appreciation to all of them for their contribution to the strength of this Irish team. I would like to commend each of your families, partners, loved ones, teachers and coaches who, as each of you knows best, played such an important part in your journey. I am so pleased to see so many of your partners here this evening – you are most welcome.
May I take a moment to pay tribute to the mastermind of this campaign, and of so many of the triumphs of recent years - your Head Coach, Joe Schmidt. I know that Joe watched the trophy presentation from the tunnel on that St Patrick’s day, which is so demonstrative of his characteristic humility.
Yet Joe and his coaching team, building on the example and labour of their predecessors, have been so instrumental in the success of recent years. To win three out of the last five Six Nations would be extraordinary for any national team. I know that success in that enterprise took many long days, weeks and indeed months of planning and preparation, not only by Joe and the coaching team, but by all those in the Irish Rugby Football Union.
Gabhaim buíochas libh, agus molaim sibh as bhur gcuid oibre agus as bhur dtiomantas, agus tá meas agus tacaíocht mhuintir na hÉireann tuilte agaibh dá bharr.
I wish to I thank you all, and commend to you for the commitment, courage and dedication you have shown, on and off the pitch, and may I take this opportunity to wish those of you travelling to Bilbao for the 12th of May the very best of luck.
Molaim sibh, tréaslaím libh as ucht an gaisce atá bainte amach agaibh agus guím gach rath oraibh don rugbaí atá le teacht agus in bhur.