Garrett Fitzgerald: The man who sent many a Munster fan on their epic crusades

In one of the few conversations about his funeral arrangements, Garrett had told Áine that he didn’t want a blow-in giving his eulogy, and that it had better be funny. She did him proud on both counts, writes Michael Moynihan.

Garrett Fitzgerald: The man who sent many a Munster fan on their epic crusades

The priest on the altar was sharp in his description: it was a day with a rugby feel to it.

Not just in the obvious way, either. Those arriving at St Joseph’s SMA Church in Wilton were there to remember Garrett Fitzgerald, the former Munster Rugby CEO, but the inquisitive wind and occasional shower were redolent of other days. Days when a full-back’s mettle might be tested early on with towering kick, maybe, or reminiscent of a country venue with the underfoot conditions getting softer with every passing minute.

Both scenarios would have been familiar to many of the men, in particular, entering the church Monday afternoon because they were of a type. Beefy, wide-shouldered, substantial: by the evidence of some swollen ears and warped knuckles, quite a few had given serious service in scrums and line-outs around the country.

Mostly in the southern province, though. There were familiar faces in the congregation from more distant outposts, but many of the accents audible around the grounds reeked of what you might call the Cork-Limerick corridor.

They were joined by members of Munster’s current generation, easily identifiable with their dark suits and red ties, not to mention the nearly-visible aura of rude good health that a professional athlete exudes.

Munster players Conor Murray and CJ Stander. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Munster players Conor Murray and CJ Stander. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

All had come to say goodbye to a man identified strongly with Munster in its good days and bad, in its heritage and professionalism alike.

Garrett only passed away last Friday at 65. No age, as more than one mourner said.

There are two ways to look at his legacy with Munster. The cold figures are impressive, a terrific return in a crushingly competitive business: two European Champions Cups, in 2006 and 2008; three Celtic Leagues titles, won in 2003, 2009 and 2011; a Celtic Cup collected in 2005.

The achievements weren’t limited to trophies in a glass case. Under his watch, Thomond Park was redeveloped and Musgrave Park improved, both to professional standards. A High Performance Centre was developed in UL to keep the talent coming through.

Paul O'Connell. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Paul O'Connell. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

But many of those in the church in Wilton also enjoyed the fruits of his labour in other ways: along the pintxo trail of San Sebastian or the taverns near the Parc Bordelais, the clubs around St Mary Street in Cardiff or Baggot Street, both upper and lower.

Many of those in attendance had known Garrett personally, obviously, and there were many who had dealt with him over the years as he wore the CEO’s jersey.

But there was a sprinkling also, surely, of the people he had directed on the great adventures.

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

Back before the great icebergs of world finance started to collide offshore you could decide on a whim to shoot off to the south of France for a game you weren’t too familiar with, and meet up with a gang of lads you hadn’t seen in ten years.

People were following the team, and the team were being directed, but who was steering the ship?

As CEO Garrett delegated the jobs. Jerry Holland was the one measuring hotel rooms to make sure Donncha O’Callaghan didn’t get Peter Stringer’s bed, while Declan Kidney and Niall O’Donovan were the ones plotting quietly to dethrone the big guns, but Garrett was the man at the helm.

This wasn’t forgotten on Monday.

Declan Kidney. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Declan Kidney. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Neither was the personality of the man himself. In her eulogy, his wife Áine provided some examples of his inimitable one-liners and comebacks: when he taught in Christians, for instance, a mother wanted her son to abandon rugby in order to follow his dream of playing tennis at Wimbledon.

“The only way he’ll get to Wimbledon is if he’s selling strawberries,” was the response from Mr. Fitzgerald in that particular parent-teacher meeting, delivered no doubt in that familiar flattened, businesslike tone.

In one of the few conversations about his funeral arrangements, he had told Áine that he didn’t want a blow-in giving his eulogy, and that it had better be funny.

She did him proud on both counts.

Niall O’Donovan offered some memories of times with Munster. Good times and times which weren’t bad so much as challenging: the granular detail of what it was like when Garrett became CEO back in 1999.

The game was so different then, O’Donovan recalled, that training sessions had to be organised at times which suited both full-time professionals and amateurs: both species coexisted on the Munster side of that time. An unlined pitch in UL was often the venue for those training sessions.

To go from that level to the full-time professional level Munster had reached when Garrett stepped down as CEO last year, in the space of two decades, was a staggering achievement.

After O’Donovan finished, the coffin was carried out of the church. It was covered by the red flag with the stag looking into the distance.

What else?

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