'Garrett Fitzgerald was a people person to his core'

Garrett Fitzgerald was an exceptional man and somebody that we all looked up to in Munster Rugby. He was a man of honesty and integrity with a huge passion for the game. He embodied everything that is good in Munster Rugby, and for us, he was Mr Munster Rugby, writes Philip Quinn.

'Garrett Fitzgerald was a people person to his core'

Garrett Fitzgerald was an exceptional man and somebody that we all looked up to in Munster Rugby. He was a man of honesty and integrity with a huge passion for the game. He embodied everything that is good in Munster Rugby, and for us, he was Mr Munster Rugby.

He treated everybody the same, whether it was those employed to do the clean-up after a match to a visiting high-profile dignitary. When Garrett asked how you were, or how your weekend went, you could see he was genuinely interested and always loved engaging in conversations about life outside of rugby. He always had a story to tell and brought a smile to your face whether that was talking about his upbringing in Knockraha or a story from his teaching or coaching days.

He always backed his staff and this gave everyone so much confidence that enabled them to flourish in their roles. Despite the massive time pressures of the role of CEO, Garrett’s door was always open and he was always available to provide advice and guidance no matter what the issue was.

When Garrett first received his diagnosis at the end of July 2018, he was on the phone two hours later from hospital, outlining the need to provide support to one of the young players that had recently joined us. This was typical Garrett, despite getting the worst possible news, he was still thinking of others. While he underwent treatment for his condition for the 18 months, he was always willing to provide support and advice to anyone that asked.

With 19 years coaching experience to add to his 18-year playing career, he had the respect of everyone within the rugby community. His most famous achievement as a coach came with the senior provincial team, when he led Munster to an incredible win over then world champions Australia in 1992. This was something he rarely spoke about but the photo of David Nucifora, current performance director for the IRFU who played for Australia against Munster that day, hung proudly in his office.

Having the perfect mix of experience as player, teacher, coach, and businessman under his belt and a passion for the game in his heart, Garrett brought excellent credentials to the top job in Munster Rugby in 1999. The role of CEO in a sporting organisation is very different to that in other walks of life. Rather than selling products or offering services, the organisation deals almost exclusively in people.

Garrett’s particular skill as CEO was in bringing people from disparate backgrounds together to work cohesively in pursuit of a common goal. The pool of people included the players, the coaching staff and a vast support team comprising analysists, medical and fitness personnel, nutritionists, physiotherapists, managers, development officers, administrators, and marketing staff.

Also, unlike a lot of non-sporting organisations, Munster Rugby relies heavily on volunteers to guide the direction of the club and the development of the game. Garrett’s greatest skill was in welding the expertise of the professional staff on the Executive with the passion and dedication of the volunteer staff to get them all moving together in the same direction.

DEALING WITH TRAGEDY: Anthony Foley’s passing hit Garrett ‘very hard personally’, but he ensured Munster responded as one to the tragedy, putting Olive and the Foley family first and foremost.
DEALING WITH TRAGEDY: Anthony Foley’s passing hit Garrett ‘very hard personally’, but he ensured Munster responded as one to the tragedy, putting Olive and the Foley family first and foremost.

While everyone saw the obvious parts of his role as CEO such as player contracting and the stadia redevelopments, it was the volume of work that he did behind the scenes that sometimes went unnoticed. A lot of this was at his own personal cost as he attended so many different committee meetings several evenings a week which often meant long hours away from Aine and the kids.

He was a people person to his core and strongly believed in the power of mutual respect and consensus. These traits, coupled with the passion he had for the game, made him an outstanding CEO. This was never so evident as when the club had challenging moments to face, such as the passing of Anthony Foley. While Anthony’s passing hit Garrett very hard personally, he ensured in his own quiet way that Munster responded as one to the tragedy, always remembering Olive and Anthony’s sons were those who had suffered most.

Garrett always remained in the background which sometimes meant he did not get anywhere near the credit he deserved. When Munster won the Heineken Cup in 2006 and 2008, he ensured everyone else got the credit for it. Garrett was not there for the glory, everything he did was for the betterment of Munster Rugby, he was a leader in the truest sense.

Despite the fact his primary focus had to be on the contracting of professional players, his real passion came to the fore when he started discussing young players coming up through the ranks. Considering he was in a role where he literally got no break from rugby, it was amazing that he still took the time to watch UCC, Highfield or some local Under 20s club match in his limited spare time.

He would always come into the office and talk about some player he had spotted and that he felt, given the right supports, would be the next hot prospect. Ken O’Connell and Garrett had many a conversation comparing notes about players they had seen over the weekend and how we could assist in their development. Garrett always had an eye for spotting talented young players, in addition to identifying potential in staff, when nobody else saw it.

The former Munster CEO welcomes then Ireland assistant coach Andy Farrell to Munster training at UL.
The former Munster CEO welcomes then Ireland assistant coach Andy Farrell to Munster training at UL.

One story that has been told on numerous occasions is in relation to his legendary negotiating style. Many Munster player and coaching contracts were presided over by Garrett down through the years, all of which were underpinned by one of his strongest principles – showing respect for those you work with at all times.

It may not have felt quite like that to Donncha O’Callaghan, however, when he went to Garrett looking for a rise when his contract was being renewed. Garrett’s immediate response to the request was, “You don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you live at home. What do you want more money for?” Suitably mollified, Donncha went away to think about it. After consulting with his buddies, he went back to Garrett and tried again, this time saying that he was thinking of buying a car.

Garrett leaves a legacy that most people could only dream of, having led the redevelopment of Thomond Park, upgrading of Irish Independent Park, construction of the High Performance Centre in University of Limerick, and overseen the winning of two European Cups and three PRO14 league titles. We have all been extremely privileged to have worked with Garrett as our leader but primarily to call him a friend.

To Aine, Megan, Jamie, Michael and all his family and close friends, on behalf of all of us at Munster Rugby, we want to thank you for sharing Garrett with us, he was one of a kind and will never be forgotten. His legacy will live long into the future.

Rest in peace Garrett.

- The author is Head of Finance and Operations at Munster Rugby.

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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