A CONVERSATION

Who me? Yes, You: John Dardis on a lifetime in rugby

Recalling his days with Old Kilcullen, The Curragh, Newbridge, Leinster ... and much, much more

Kildare Now Reporter

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John Dardis

Mention the name John Dardis and to many the first thing that instantly comes to mind is politics — a senator for some 18 years, including Deputy Leader of the Upper House; leading member of the Progressive Democrats and Co Councillor ... but to most others it is rugby that springs to mind; schools rugby in Newbridge College; club rugby with Old Kilcullen initially before the amalgamation with the Curragh to form Newbridge RFC; the big decision to join forces that coincided with him taking up the whistle becoming an ARLB official and all that entailed. Today John Dardis is serving a three year term as Vice-President of the RDS. Here John looks back on his rugby involvement over the years, and much more

It all began on the playing fields of Newbridge College and a painful lesson at the very start. Don’t tackle head first into an opponent’s knee. No HIA’s in those days, just a visit to the Richmond Hospital and discharge to re-offend.
However the love affair with rugby had begun and has continued for a lifetime with memories that glow of people, places and games, from a steeply sloped hillside field used to course hares under the tower of Old Kilcullen, to distant and exotic places such as Mullingar, Roscrea and Enniscorthy, Heineken Cups and on around the world to see Ireland, Lions and World Cups until the long awaited Grand Slam in Cardiff and the arrival in the promised land on a never to be forgotten November day at Soldier Field, Chicago.
My club, Old Kilcullen RFC, began life in 1968 when Carlow came to play on the hillside coursing field.
Despite the appearance the “Old” appellation had nothing to do with a school but rather the location of a round tower and Brennan’s pub outside Kilcullen. Apparently, the proximity of a pub was a necessary prerequisite to forming a provincial club in those days. But Brennan’s had additional luxury features: sheds in the yard to change in and a tap beside them.
When our Southern hemisphere rugby cousins speak about going to the “sheds” we know what they mean.
Anyone turning up with boots and shorts was likely to get a game.
About to kick off a half an hour or more late it would suddenly become apparent that there was something missing – a referee.
One was regarded as desirable rather than essential but the captain would point at the nearest player surplus to requirements and say “you know a bit about the rules, you do it.” Making the fatal error of telling him that rugby was played under laws and not rules, I squeaked: Who? Me?
Yes you!
On such solid foundations are refereeing careers built.
Soon it became obvious that a permanent home was needed and the club moved to Rosetown near Newbridge not much more than a couple of miles from the grounds of Curragh RFC.
In time it became obvious each club was drawing from a small pool. A merger was inevitable but resisted by some with strong attachments to the separate clubs.
Talks of a Brexit nature followed culminating in EGMs.
For some obscure reason the call went out from Old Kilcullen for a referee, this time to chair the meeting seeking agreement for the merger.
Who? Me?
Yes you!
The first business was the most contentious. It was to close the bar.
After a meeting conducted under strict parliamentary procedure (speak once and only after everyone has spoken once do you get a second chance) it was almost closing time so a call was made to “put the question.”
To yelps from those who had a lot more they wished to say the vote was taken and following a recount the merger was carried by a margin of two.
The bar opened.
Thus was established a united club which formally became Newbridge RFC with its permanent home and modern facilities at Rosetown.
Once again Carlow came to visit as they continue to do for openings and anniversaries.
Newbridge was fortunate to have two of the most famous names in Irish rugby living nearby: Dr. Karl Mullen and Sir Anthony O’Reilly.
Karl graciously agreed to become club president. Inspired by Niall Browne this culminated in a series of memorable legends functions with Karl and Jack Kyle and then with the surviving members of the Grand Slam Ireland team of 1948, the 1955 Lions and Fitzgerald’s Triple Crown side.
Prior to the Lion’s visit to Killashee Hotel I was dispatched (Who? Me?) to collect Cliff Morgan from Dublin.
I had been warned that Cliff, who was suffering from throat cancer, would not want to talk during the journey as he wished to save his wonderful voice (“this is Gareth Edwards. A dramatic start. What a score”) for the evening’s function.
By the time we had gone a very short distance Cliff was in full flow about his time with Bective Rangers, racing in Naas and dining in Lawlor’s of Naas.
He began furiously scribbling notes.
At one point while stuck near Rathcoole he handed me a note and I began writing a reply. I had forgotten that while he might not be able to talk he could definitely hear!
What a man, what a journey. The only time it was great to be held up by roadworks.
But back to the refereeing odyssey.
Apprenticeship involved visits to far flung and exotic venues such as Roscrea (in Leinster?), Mullingar, Edenderry, Portlaoise, Tullamore and Enniscorthy to name but a few, usually togging out in a pub, or in Gorey’s case a bakery.
Under the guidance of Leinster’s tiny band of Provincial refereeing stalwarts the late Frank Anderson (Athy) and Des Flanagan (Portlaoise) and the growth in the Provincial game promotion was steady.
The then prevalent official attitude that all senior clubs and all senior referees should be confined to the Dublin area and that civilisation ended at Newland’s Cross subsided when Skerries and Greystones extended struggle to join the senior ranks succeeded.
Could it be possible a chap from outside the Pale could referee senior rugby?
Who? Me?
Yes you!
The Provincial Towns’ Cup was the pinnacle of the season outside of Dublin, attracting crowds that frequently surpassed senior and interpro games.
I was fortunate to referee three Towns’ finals. Portlaoise featured in all three, once as hosts, once as winners and once as losers.
Finals, whatever the level, are invariably hard fought tense affairs won by narrow margins.
When Tullamore beat Drogheda 9-3 in a certain year I would prefer to keep secret (1976) a ball was tapped from a lineout to the Tullamore scrum half who promptly attempted a drop at goal on the run. Anchored (did I hear you say as usual) on the touchline it was an open question if the kick had been successful. When all the Tullamore players jumped in the air and with the ever helpful advice of prop Seamus (Timber) Egan a goal was awarded – the correct call of course!
The most memorable final was the 1982 game in North Kildare when Portlaoise (7) beat Naas (6) to lift the Towns’ Cup for the first time.
The occasion was graced by a superb try by Portlaoise out-half Willie Ryan.
Naas had enough kicks at goal to win and Portlaoise had to defend for their lives in the closing minutes.
The Evening Herald’s “Prop” (the late Austin O’Donnell from the Curragh) enthused “the whole affair at Kilcock – the superb staging by North Kildare, the high level of sportsmanship on the field ... made for a day Provincial rugby people will remember with pride.”
Modesty demands the … part be left out, other than to say that Prop’s reference to the referee was much kinder than the usual press reports.
A record third final for me took place in 1988 at Tullamore when outsiders Navan conquered Portlaoise by a score of 7-3, with John Brady touching down for Navan.
There were less glamorous tasks.
Leinster’s HQ in Westmoreland Street had limited resources so finding and assigning referees in the North Midlands was delegated to the area.
This was done by conscription.
Who? Me?
Yes you!
A mid-week schools’ cup match in Donnybrook and a senior cup game in Lansdowne Road on Saturday were frequently followed by a Sunday J3 fixture in a converted farmer’s field when the appointed official (if there was one) cried off an hour before the game.
At least fitness was not an issue.
The list of memorable refereeing days is long, ranging from Thomond Park, the Galway Sportsground and Belfast; the Wolfhounds with Esteve and Emperon of France; the Combined Universities v Lansdowne/ Wanderers at Christmas time and even the All Blacks –well at least the ones in Ireland led by an up and coming player from Mullingar, Joe Schmidt!
And then there were Parliamentary games featuring such notables as Jim Glennon, Donal Spring (qualified as a brother!), Jimmy Denehan and little known MP, Iain Duncan Smith.
But the stand out day was the Schools’ Final in (whisper it) 1977 when Blackrock with Hugo McNeil beat St. Mary’s with Paul Dean 24-12 after extra time.
The programme has St. Patrick’s day as the date but the fixture was postponed to protect the pitch before Saturday’s Ireland v England.
Within minutes of the rescheduled game I was informed that the schools had agreed there would be extra time in the event of a draw.
No matter that extra time for schools was prohibited.
The draw happened courtesy of a Mary’s try by Paul Dean described by Edmund Van Esbeck of the Irish Times as “worthy to rank with the very best.”
Paul Hinkson’s try for Blackrock in the first minute of extra time converted by Mc Neill effectively determined the outcome. It left an enduring glow to be involved in a game described by Van Esbeck “as good a demonstration of the virtues and grandeur of rugby football as it has ever been my privilege to witness.”
After 20 years of whistling, apparently my eyesight and hearing improved and it was time to stop.
Then, the previously undreamt of journey with Leinster Rugby began.
My wife, Beatrice, and I took to the road for Heineken and European Cup victories in Cardiff, Twickenham and Biarritz; defeat in Newcastle and Edinburgh (easier to swallow Connacht’s Pro 12 victory). But it was always great to come home to the RDS where we have been long term season ticket holders.
Last year, I began a three year term as Vice-President of the RDS (Who? Me? Yes you!).
So in a curious way two interests have merged.
It is marvellous to have Leinster play great rugby at the RDS arena on a surface that we take pride in and where plans are advanced to replace the old Anglesea Stand (£32,000 in 1928) with a stand more in keeping with the needs of today’s spectators.
An early taste of what Covid had in store came in March with the hugely disappointing, but justified cancellation of the Schools’ Cup Final, just days before Newbridge College and Clongowes Wood were due to contest it.
The sadness of seeing the RDS empty of fans is slightly relieved by watching the recent great performances of the team on TV.
While many who come to rugby, the Horse Show or concerts see the RDS as a venue the Society (a charity) is far more than that.
For nearly 300 years its philanthropic mission has been and remains to promote the economic and cultural life of Ireland. The National Library, Museum and Gallery all originated in the RDS as did the Botanic Gardens, the Radiological Institute and more.
The Members’ Club is a welcoming place to gather to meet friends, have a meal and a drink before watching Leinster’s stars in action.
Soon, may we all be able to gather again in the RDS.
Why not come along and join us in the Members’ Club.