From grassroots to rugby’s top tier

Neil Halligan


Neil Halligan

Two years’ time will mark a unique moment for junior rugby clubs in Ireland, and an extremely proud one for Longford RFC, when former President of the midlands’ club, Pat Fitzgerald, will become the President of the IRFU.

Two years’ time will mark a unique moment for junior rugby clubs in Ireland, and an extremely proud one for Longford RFC, when former President of the midlands’ club, Pat Fitzgerald, will become the President of the IRFU.

It’s the first time that anyone from a junior club – who has remained only with that club – will take up such a prestigious position.

It’s a fitting reward for Fitzgerald, who in his current position of chairman of the IRFU’s commercial and marketing committee, has overseen some of the biggest sponsorship deals in the Union’s history - including O2, Puma, Volkswagen, Eden Park and Guinness – now worth €12m per annum. All the while, throughout his successful career, he has remained loyal and proud of his Longford roots.

Born and reared in Rathangan, Co Kildare, Pat arrived in Longford from Dublin in the early 70s to work for Jim Reynolds in the machinery business.

“I came down to Longford in about 1971/72. I had been playing in Dublin and really didn’t know whether I was going to continue playing or not.

“Somewhere along the line I ran into Derick Turner and I was asked to come up to the club, which was a very basic club in those years. We didn’t have a clubhouse; we changed in the Annaly Hotel (for matches), which was our HQ at that time.

“As you know, Derick doesn’t let go easily and I was roped in, and delighted to be as it happens,” he said.

He started his own business, which brought him back to Dublin in 1986. However, during his 15 years in Longford, he laid down roots and never changed allegiance to any other rugby club or joined any other rugby club.

A proud member of Longford RFC, Pat played across the backline. “Wherever they put me, but usually scrum half or in the centre,” he said.

President of Longford RFC from 1983 to 85, his abilities on committees and seeing jobs through played its role in developing the Demesne club.

During his early years with Longford, the first clubhouse was built, led by a small committee of the late David Pearse, Warren Turner, Paddy Quinn and Pat.

“Most people at the time, including our club treasurer, said we were mad. We had about £600 in the bank and we were looking to spend £60,000,” said Pat.

It was completed and soon the development of one of the country’s first all-weather pitches - a Prunty-Mulqueen pitch - was undertaken. A second one followed, with floodlights installed thereafter.

“It’s all about volunteers. We’ve been really lucky with the quality and quantity of volunteers that we have had in this club,” said Pat.

On the field, Longford were also improving, winning their first ever title - a 2nd provincials midland league. 1st team success followed in the form of Midland League titles and the club began to grab a few of the sporting headlines in the local media.

Away from the spotlight, however, Pat began to make a steady rise through the administrative ranks of rugby at provincial level.

As Longford’s representative on the Midland League committee, he had a seat on the Junior rugby committee of Leinster. When he became chairman of the Midland League, Pat was then handed a seat on the senior executive of Leinster rugby.

From there, Pat was made chairman of the commercial and marketing committee in Leinster, which gave him a place on the management committee of Leinster, at a time when the sport was slowly moving towards professionalism.

“We knew that we were in a different world and we had to try and adjust. We were on a learning curve.

“I have to say that when professionalism hit Ireland first, we were very slow to buy into it. I’d say we were split 50-50 between the people who wanted it and those who didn’t.

“Luckily at the time, the IRFU were astute people; they saw that if they didn’t embrace it, they were going to be left behind,” said Pat, pointing to the World Cup defeat against Argentina in Lens as being the watershed moment that led to Irish players being centrally contracted.

“All the success that we’ve had has stemmed from that,” said Pat.

Recognised by others for his ability in those early years of professional rugby in Leinster, he was put forward for the position as IRFU marketing and commercial chairman.

“I had no great ambitions about joining the IRFU. I was quite happy being chairman of the commercial and marketing committee with Leinster. We were having a lot of success.

“Probably at the back of my mind was the fact that no-one from a junior club ever got on the Union (IRFU).

“Eventually, various people in Leinster prevailed upon me to put my name forward and I’ve been there ever since.”

Despite the long hours involved, the position remains voluntary. With his own construction machinery sales business – Falcon Breaker Sales – Pat has managed to find time to combine the two roles, which also includes being a board member of Aviva Stadium (one of three from IRFU).

“For the last number of years it has been great to be involved in rugby, at any level. People often say ‘it must be tough-going, you’re very involved and it’s a lot of time’, and it is all of that, but it never comes across as a chore. It’s a privilege to be involved.”

Recently, Pat’s voluntary contribution to the union over the past 40 years was acknowledged with the Mr Boots award, which is given to those who have made an outstanding contribution to junior rugby. Typically modest, he said it was an unexpected honour.

“It came out of the blue for me; there was no-one more surprised than me, because there are a lot of people around who do an awful lot of stuff who are more deserving. I feel that it’s as much an award for Longford Rugby Club as it is for me,” said Pat, speaking in the recently developed Longford RFC clubhouse.

“It’s fantastic to be able to bring people down from senior clubs, and from the IRFU, to see what this club has done; it gives me an enormous sense of pride.

“The club itself deserves every accolade that it gets. There are very few senior clubs in Dublin who would get close to competing with this. The fact that we are solvent and going well is a tribute to everybody involved in the club.”

Currently Junior Vice President, Pat will become senior Vice President next year and President the following year, which will undoubtedly be a similarly proud moment for all involved with Longford RFC.

More photos on page 32.