Lion cubs on trip of life­time


‘‘For many of [the play­ers], New Zealand is the epit­ome of rugby. The boys have as­pired to be here.’’

The Lions might be the talk of the town, but a band of Ir­ish rugby play­ers is mak­ing a big im­pres­sion at clubs around Welling­ton.

While the Ul­ster ju­nior sevens team’s tour might have been some­what over­shad­owed by the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions, the par­al­lel tours are no co­in­ci­dence.

The tour­ing party of 14 un­der11 play­ers and about a dozen coach­ing staff, par­ents and sup­port­ers touched down in Welling­ton on Mon­day for a week of rugby.

As well as play­ing four matches in Tawa, Welling­ton and Lower Hutt - in­clud­ing a match against Welling­ton RFC billed as the ‘‘Mini-Lions ver­sus the MiniAll Blacks’’ - coach Roger Alexan­der said part of the tour was about the boys ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the ex­cite­ment of a Lions tour in New Zealand.

Alexan­der said a tour of New Zealand was the trip of a life­time for any rugby player, and the boys were ex­cited to be play­ing and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing rugby on the other side of the world.

‘‘If you were to push a pin through the ground here, it would come out some­where near Ire­land. You can’t get any fur­ther away.

‘‘For many of [the play­ers], New Zealand is the epit­ome of rugby. The boys have as­pired to be here.’’

The play­ers were drawn from the Col­eraine, CIYMS and Bal­ly­mena clubs and the tour was sup­ported by Ul­ster Rugby and the Ir­ish Rugby Foot­ball Union who were keen for the boys to be am­bas­sadors for the Ir­ish game.

Their sched­ule in­cluded matches against Tawa, Hutt Old Boys Marist, Welling­ton and Pe­tone.

The tourists spent six months rais­ing $35,000 for the trip which they did by bag pack­ing at su­per­mar­kets, hold­ing raf­fles and through cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship.

The team was also given per­mis­sion by Richie McCaw to hold the Ir­ish pre­miere of his doc­u­men­tary, Chas­ing Great, to help raise funds.

A spe­cial mo­ment for the play­ers was hav­ing their jer­seys pre­sented by Wil­lie John McBride, an Ul­ster­man and 1971 Lions player - the only Lions team to have won a se­ries in New Zealand.

De­spite the tour be­ing very much fo­cussed on rugby, Alexan­der said it was more about giv- ing his lads some life ex­pe­ri­ence.

‘‘It’s about get­ting the boys to meet other peo­ple and ex­pe­ri­ence the cul­ture. An ex­pe­ri­ence like this breaks down bar­ri­ers and teaches them there is no such thing as ‘can’t’.

‘‘Be­ing kids, of course they want to win, but for me, it’s about these guys cre­at­ing a bond for the rest of their lives.

‘‘We have boys from dif­fer­ent so­cial back­grounds and dif­fer­ent re­li­gions, and rugby re­ally neu­tralises [those dif­fer­ences].’’

So­cial­is­ing with their op­po­nents af­ter the games was as big a part of the tour as the time spent on the pad­dock.

Be­fore leav­ing Ire­land, the team also fundraised for The Royal Belfast Hos­pi­tal for Sick Chil­dren and Welling­ton Re­gional Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal, rais­ing $2000 which went to­wards a chair-bed that en­abled par­ents to stay by their child’s side when stay­ing at the hos­pi­tal.

Alexan­der said the team wanted to leave be­hind a le­gacy of good will in both coun­tries.

The tourists head home this week.

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