Donal Lenihan: My Garrett Fitzgerald degree course in rugby and life

Donal Lenihan gives his personal reflections on Munster’s first CEO and his friend, Garrett Fitzgerald.

Donal Lenihan: My Garrett Fitzgerald degree course in rugby and life

Donal Lenihan gives his personal reflections on Munster’s first CEO and his friend, Garrett Fitzgerald.

Perth, Western Australia, June 1999

“Hi Garrett, what’s happening?”

My phone rang as I watched the Irish forwards going through a series of lineouts under the supervision of Warren Gatland in preparation for the test against Australia at the weekend.

Garrett Fitzgerald was not only a good friend but a quality coach. We often shot the breeze on rugby matters but he would have known I was on the other side of the world. What was on his mind?

“Munster are advertising for the new position of Chief Executive Officer. Keep it to yourself but I have applied for the job and have an interview coming up. You have a great insight into the main personalities in the IRFU. I need to pick your brain...”

Morning break, CBC Cork, 1972

“We’re goosed. Garrett Fitzgerald is after breaking his ankle.” It was the talk of the school during the 10.30am morning break. I was a few months into my first year in CBC and still didn't fully grasp just how big rugby was in the school. The previous year the senior team won the Munster Schools Senior Cup for the first time in years.

It was a big deal. I had no idea who Garrett Fitzgerald was but, apparently, he was one of the stars of the show and was key to CBC’s aspirations in retaining the cup. A second-row forward fast enough to make a schools' 4x100 yards relay team good enough to win the Munster colleges title was a rare breed. By all accounts, this guy was a fantastic athlete.

At that stage, my sole interest in the senior squad revolved around the fact that you got a half-day to go to their matches and a day off if they won the Cup. Fitzgerald would be a huge loss in the race for two-in-a-row. As one door closed, another opened and a young lad in 4th year was fast-tracked into the team.

Garrett’s replacement, Jerry Holland, would not only go on to play a big part in CBC retaining the Schools Cup for a further three years, securing many more half-days for me, but would also be at Garrett’s side, along with Declan Kidney, at the core of the Munster management team that would eventually conquer European rugby 34 years down the track.

Thomond Park, December 1977

Everyone remembers their first senior game of club rugby. As a raw 18-year-old second-row, I was thrown in at the deep end when the same Jerry Holland was injured for a senior friendly against Bohemians in Thomond Park.

I was in first year at UCC and was training with the big boys. Garrett Fitzgerald was a fixture in the senior team, a leader without the captain’s armband. By that stage, he had moved into the front row and was tighthead prop on the UCC team that won the Munster Senior Cup in 1976, a great achievement for a university side.

Given my age, I was giving away poundage to my opposite numbers in the Bohs side. Scrummaging behind Garrett, I was keen to fit in and not to let him down. He was nothing but supportive that day. Our scrum was rock solid throughout and we won the match comfortably.

Afterwards, he assured me that I’d get plenty more opportunities at that level. He couldn’t have done more to help me on my maiden voyage. That always stuck in my mind. He was a great communicator even then and had a way to make people feel good about themselves.

It was also around this time that I learned another valuable lesson. Playing in a Junior Cup match for UCC against Bandon, we retired to the Western Star to celebrate our win. I ended up in the company of Garrett and his lifelong friend since their school days in CBC, Christy Cantillon, due primarily to the fact they promised to get me a spin home.

That was a mistake. Straight out of school, drinking pints with two seasoned college veterans proved a step too far. It didn't help matters that the two lads would bring me on a detour on the way home.

The Old Christians clubhouse in Carrigmore was always a lively spot on a Sunday night. Fitzgerald and Cantillon were only warming up. I was in a bag. A harsh lesson learned in the college of life. They dumped me outside my house and left me to deal with the fallout. Thanks, Garrett.

Munster Rugby in the 1990s

Garrett graduated to the lofty role of Munster coach after a stellar career as a five-time Munster Senior Schools Cup-winning coach with CBC where he was now a well-respected member of the teaching staff. From there he did a brilliant job as senior coach with UCC before taking on the same role with the province. Munster’s defeat of Australia in Musgrave Park in 1992 proved his proudest moment.

A picture of the Munster scrum demolishing the Wallaby pack en route to a penalty try hung proudly in his office at Musgrave Park. The Wallaby captain and hooker that day was none other than David Nucifora, now the IRFU’s influential director of rugby, in effect, Garrett’s boss.

Suffice to say, Nucifora looks less than comfortable in that photo. Garrett and I often joked about it.

Garrett was cute and a shrewd negotiator. I sat on a Munster selection committee for two years when he was coach. This was back in the day when five selectors, two sub selectors, and a coach, who wasn’t always a selector, picked the team.

Let’s just say the deliberations weren’t always as clear cut as they should have been. Recently retired, I felt I had a better understanding of what was required than some in the room. It was very clear in my mind who should be on the team but, with selectors drawn from clubs across Cork and Limerick, it wasn't always a straightforward process. I often left those meetings seething and would argue with Garrett in the car on the way home.

Everything in Munster rugby was about compromise in those days, even the venue for the meetings, Charleville one week, Mallow the next. What I didn't quite grasp at first was that Garrett was playing the long game, happy to go with some selections while working towards the team he really wanted when the interprovincial championship came around.

He was a smart operator. Those attributes would stand to him when guiding Munster’s fortunes in the early days of professionalism.

Ronan O'Gara: 'I never looked upon him as the CEO. He was Garrett'

In pursuit of Heineken Cups: 2000-2008

Garrett Fitzgerald’s role in Munster’s Heineken Cup story is absolutely crucial. Not only was the professional game progressing at a rapid pace, the administration of the game was changing with every season. As Munster’s first CEO, Garrett had no blueprint to work off and had to adapt on the hoof.

When Munster reached their first Heineken Cup final in 2000, Garrett had barely put his feet under the desk in the old portable building that housed his tiny office at the Dolphin end of Musgrave Park. The demands of the job escalated on a daily basis as Munster entered uncharted waters but he dealt with them with a confidence and assurance that rubbed off on all the staff. Crucially, he knew where the priorities lay and that always surrounded what was best for the team.

It helped that, as a CEO, he had a deep understanding of the game, had a critical eye, and knew exactly what the coaching staff needed, at times, even before they realised it themselves. On many occasions as the Munster machine trekked its way around Europe, I would sit with Garrett on the journey home and look for his take on the match. He had a forensic eye for detail and a brilliant way of planting an idea in the coach's mind without ever being seen to be interfering.

Munster’s Heineken Cup successes in 2006 and 2008 would not have happened without him. He operated under the radar but was hugely influential. As a commerce teacher along with spending a number of years in the banking sector, Garrett had the eclectic mix of solid business acumen and deep rugby knowledge which made him an outstanding CEO. He was always thinking outside the box.

As Munster’s first academy chairman, I worked closely with Garrett in the early days of the academy. We both felt the opportunity to play professional sport must be attractive to young GAA players. Having played a bit of rugby with London Irish youths while growing up in London, we targeted Darran O’Sullivan, a future All-Ireland winning Kerry captain, and met him with his dad in Killarney.

Darran could have made a quality scrum-half and, after a positive chat, we were excited about the prospect on the journey home. He was interested, even played a bit of rugby for a while, albeit on the wing, but the lure of lining out for the Kingdom proved too much.

Post-2008

In many ways, Munster’s march on Europe woke a sleeping giant in Leinster. Once they defeated Munster in what proved a pivotal moment in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park before winning the competition for the first time, it has become very difficult for Munster to keep pace with the Leinster machine.

European Cups apart, Garrett’s biggest legacy to Munster Rugby is in overseeing the redevelopment of both Thomond and Musgrave Park and the creation of the Centre of Excellence at the University of Limerick. That was a very difficult call for a Corkman to preside over but, once again, he was guided purely by what he adjudged to be best for the squad.

Perhaps his greatest challenge was in dealing with the tragic aftermath of Anthony Foley’s sudden death on the eve of a Champions Cup game in Paris. Garrett was a huge admirer of Anthony and his passing hit him hard. Yet he had to put that to one side and handle the immediate task of assisting the Foley family in every way in trying to deal with an incredibly difficult situation.

The recent planning permission and grant aid secured for the development of an additional Centre of Excellence for Munster Rugby in Cork was something Garrett had been working hard on before ill-health intervened. He was thrilled when that was approved recently.

Last December, Dr Con Murphy and I were invited to attend a small lunch gathering in Cork to mark Garrett’s retirement. Leinster CEO Mick Dawson, with whom Garrett enjoyed a great working relationship, and John Baker, an agent Garrett enjoyed lots of interaction with when negotiating several high profile contracts over the years, organised the outing.

The craic was brilliant.

Everything was on the table including the large debt on Páirc Uí Chaoimh, the fall-out from Ireland’s disappointing showing at the World Cup, the many challenges facing Munster, and the conveyor belt of talent coming through the Leinster system. It would have made some podcast!

The highlight of the day, however, was the fact that Garrett appeared back to his best. That is why his sudden passing is even harder to fathom. Looking forward in retirement to spending more time with his beloved wife Áine, who captured Garrett’s life so eloquently in a humorous and moving funeral oration, and children Megan, Jamie, and Michael, in their favourite spot in Glenbeigh, Co Kerry, his family have been robbed prematurely.

The IRFU chose wisely when they appointed Garrett Fitzgerald as Munster CEO. For 20 years he served his province with intelligence, passion, dignity, authority, and humility.

He will be sorely missed by all who crossed his path.

The making of Munster

In November, Garrett sat down with Tony Leen to chat through his life and times in rugby. You can listen to the two-part interview below.

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