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'We don't just aim to create great players, but great individuals'

Former Ireland star Marcus Horan among expert group driving player welfare.

Simon Keogh, Omar Hassanein, Michael Swift and Marcus Horan of the IRUPA.
Simon Keogh, Omar Hassanein, Michael Swift and Marcus Horan of the IRUPA.

WITH CLOSE TO 50 years of professional rugby experience between them, it’s safe to say that the main men behind the Irish Rugby Union Players Association (IRUPA) know a thing or two about the mind-set of a professional athlete.

Throw into that knowledge base an Olympic sprinter, and you have a group that intrinsically understands the requirements and needs of elite sportspeople.

Former Ireland and Munster front row Marcus Horan, ex-Leinster and Harlequins winger Simon Keogh and Connacht second row Michael Swift are striving to make a tangible difference to player welfare and representation in Irish rugby.

Omar Hassanein, who played professionally in several countries before taking up a role as CEO of IRUPA, spearheads this paternal knowledge from the top down, while the likes of former World Indoor 60m champion hurdler Derval O’Rourke offer additional sporting expertise.

“Because we have gone through ourselves a fair amount of the issues our members are faced with, we can truly and honestly say we don’t speak on behalf of the players… We are the players,” explains Hassanein, who played most of his rugby in a very different part of the world using his own players association in his native Australia to guide him through his professional career.

Following several years at both the NSW Waratahs and the famous Randwick  club in Sydney, Hassanein’s career then took him to Japan, France and Italy where he not only picked up valuable life skills but also managed to advance his post-grad studies in the process. Following retirement at age 30, he went on gain employment with IRUPA’s Australian equivalent (RUPA) for five years before making the move across to Ireland.

“Being a former professional player allows you to grasp the mind-set of the athlete in a very unique way that many don’t fully appreciate or understand,” says Hassanein. ”Having lived it myself and been immersed in it for many years, I feel I am able to connect with professional rugby players and gain immediate respect, irrespective of where that may be in the world.

“In this same vein, IRUPA has taken the opportunity to bring more players into our organisation, utilising individuals whose business skillset compliments their unique knowledge of elite sport,’ continues Hassanein. “Having ex-professional players and an elite athlete like Derval O’Rourke on the IRUPA team allows us to develop a diverse and knowledgeable staff base to ensure that our member’s rights are protected and their lives enhanced.”

Keogh is a prime example of someone who possess this unique mix of skills and experience. In his position as Operations Manager and Head of Legal Affairs, the 36-year-old leans heavily on his 10-year professional career, together with his experience in one of Ireland’s leading law firms.

The former Leinster wing played an active part in player associations throughout his professional career, sitting on the board of the RPA while playing with Harlequins in the UK and assisting IRUPA on his return to his native province.

“I am passionate about looking after my peers, I feel strongly about the need for a strong collective voice for the players. I am delighted to be able to assist our members in any way I can to improve their individual and collective positions,” says Keogh.

“I have seen first-hand that without appropriate representation the needs and desires of the player can often be ignored. I believe that IRUPA has taken huge strides in the last few years to ensure that the players are seen as a valued stakeholder.”

Hassanein and Keogh work primarily on Player Representation via their ongoing negotiations with the IRFU on behalf of the playing group’s members.

Munster's Marcus Horan tackled by Dragon's Ashley Smith Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland Marcus Horan is now IRUPA's Player Development Manager for the Munster's players. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The other major function of the association (Player Development) employs five staff under the auspices of the IRUPA/IRFU Player Development Programme (PDP). Within this, Horan acts as IRUPA’s Player Development Manager for the Munster players, and in doing so draws on his experience from 14 years as a professional.

The 38-year-old’s extensive experience in the game adds huge value to all five pillars of the PDP incorporating services in the areas of Career Advice and Guidance, Education, Training and Skills, Personal Brand management, , Financial Management and Planning and Player Well-being. Overall the aim of the PDP is to maximise opportunities for players while they are still playing as well as preparing them for life after rugby.

Horan became Munster’s first junior representative in IRUPA and eventually progressed to be their senior representative, culminating in two years as Chairman of IRUPA. Having experienced the transition of retirement from the game, the Clare man notes the importance of support from the players’ body.

“IRUPA has been vital for me in adjusting from being a professional rugby player,” says Horan. “My work with IRUPA has made me realise that we should not just focus on creating great rugby players but our aim should be to create great individuals who can contribute beyond their playing days. The IRUPA Player Development Programme, I believe, is vital in fulfilling this.”

A recent addition to the IRUPA team is Swift, who took up his position as Media and Communications Manager in July of last year. Being able to communicate key messages and to gauge and quantify where players stand on certain topics is vital for any Players’ Association.

“To have been at the coalface for so many years, gives me a certain amount of credence and respect when it comes to representing and providing a voice for our members,” says Swift. “As a former player I benefited enormously from the services afforded to me from IRUPA. Because of this I feel extremely passionate and fortunate to be in a position to help the next generation of Irish players coming through.”

The Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association (IRUPA) is the collective body for all professional rugby players in Ireland – owned by the players for the players. For more information log on to www.irupa.ie or on Twitter.

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