I kicked in the wrong apartment door for Aled Walters ‘cos I didn’t want to let him down – Irish Examiner

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It was hard not to be moved by the scenes in Japan last weekend. A country beset by problems, economic and social, historic and contemporary, achieved what very few of their citizens thought possible at the beginning of 2019.Aled WordPress Pic

Siya Kolisi, the boy from a Port Elizabeth township, lifted the Webb Ellis Cup as the first black man to captain the Springboks.

‘Rainbow Nation’ usually refers to the multiculturalism of South African society, but and the term is particularlyrelevant to the coaching ticket behind this monumental feat, which counted a Welshman and an Irishman among its ranks. The latter, Felix Jones, received plenty of praise for his contribution since joining the set-up in August, described as “immense” and “amazing” by senior members of the squad.

Less is known about the other foreigner in the backroom; the other ex-Munster man, head of athletic performance Aled Walters. When it comes to the public, the role of the strength and conditioning department in any side’s success is largely overlooked. Those on the inside know exactly how crucial a factor it is to a winning campaign.

Aled left Munster for South Africa in March 2018, Rassie Erasmus having seen enough during his 15 months in Limerick to be convinced he was the man to get his squad of enormous Africans into championship-winning condition.

This was not just down to the scientific understanding of what players need to be physically capable of at the highest level. A significant,arguably more importantfactor was Aled’s unmatched ability to create an environment where players relish hard work and having a laugh in equal measure.

An S&C department’s role in a squad goes far beyond telling players how much to bench press or how far to run. Often underpaid, overworked, and desperately under-appreciated by those without an intimate knowledge of what they contribute, they are a vital link between players and coaching staff.

They drive the environment more than anyone else. When things are going exceptionally well, they keep feet on the ground. When things are going badly, they lift spirits, distract, and get everyonefocused on the next task.

If a player is struggling with form or not pulling his weight, it is rarely the rugby coach who approaches him. An S&C will be the first to pull him aside and have a word, relying on the strength of their relationship to speak openly and honestly and find a solution.

It is a very difficult balancing act to get right. You need the confidence of both the players and coaches, deciding what to pass up or down the chain and what to keep to yourself. The relationship with players is particularly delicate; without being in the friend zone, it’s difficult to get the best out of a player. Fail to maintain an understanding that you are the boss and all sorts of problems arise.

Aled, along with his colleagues PJ Wilson (now head of S&C at Bath) and Adam Sheehan, perfected this balancing act for the six years I worked under them. Fear is often used as a tool by coaches right across the sporting world.

Players were notoriously terrified from the moment they set foot in one of Joe Schmidt’s Irish camps to the moment they left. They were genuinely petrified of making a mistake and feeling the wrath of Schmidt’s disapproval in front of their peers.

With Aled, it was never a fear of repercussion, but a fear of disappointing him. That is the most powerful motivating factor you can have in life. Like the fear of disappointing a parent, I never wanted to let Aled down.

I’m sure that is exactly the sentiment he has managed to instil in the Springboks in the last year and a half.

This led to one or two questionable decisions on my part over the years, however. Those who follow international players on social media will likely have seen images of them wearing recovery boots at some point. These are like pants that gradually inflate with air in order to compress the leg muscles and aid recovery.

A few years back, we only had two of these machines in Munster. There had been some issues with lads taking them home for the night and not bringing them back in the morning, meaning other people couldn’t use them. I asked Aled if I could take a pair home one Tuesday, as I had physio at 9am the next day, so would be in nice and early. He agreed, but made clear that the boots were to be there first thing in the morning.

As happened once in a while, my timekeeping was a little off and I was under pressure to get out the door and make it to UL on time. When I sat in the car I realised I had forgotten the boots, so ran back to the apartment block and up the stairs. I was living in student accommodation at the time where doors were operated by key cards, which were constantly breaking and needing to be reset in the office.

I tried the door, and the key was not working. I cursed the keys and the management, knowing there would be nobody to reset the key until after 9 o’clock. I said to myself, “Well, it’s their problem now” and decided to kick in the door. I kicked once, twice, and at the third attempt, the lock gave, pieces of wood showering the hallway.

I kept a cabinet in the front hall, which I noticed was missing as I ran towards the kitchen. I remember thinking: “Where the fuck is the cabinet?” before opening the door and seeing a load of women’s laundry on a clothes horse in front of me. At which point it dawned on me.

I was in the wrong apartment.

In my desperation to avoid letting Aled down, I had kicked in the door of some strangers’ apartment, which was on the floor below mine. Thankfully after overcoming the initial shock, the residents saw the funny side and were able to laugh about it. After overcoming the initial embarrassment, I was able to do the same.

As well as giving an insight into the bubble that is professional rugby, where you will happily kick in the door of your apartment to get a pair of recovery boots, this also goes to show the kind of effect Aled had during his time at Munster, and why it was no surprise for anyone that had the pleasure of working with him to see a World Cup medal around his neck.

How much do we really love and appreciate our Irish culture? – Irish Examiner

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Can you speak any Irish, Duncan?”
“Eh, I can yeah, a bit.”
“Can you say some stuff?”
“Eh, yeah, eh…”

And so began a few moments of awkwardly tripping over the most basic Irish phrases, with plenty of French peppered into my shamefully and incoherently poor attempt to showcase my country’s language. The conversation was with Edgar Tu’inukuafe, a very large and very friendly New Zealander of Tongan descent that I have had the pleasure of getting to know since I moved to France.

Like many Pacific Islanders in his native Auckland, Edgar’s parents moved there in search of a better life for themselves and their families. This is the case for many players of Pacific heritage who now ply their trade in Europe. While I had played alongside Casey Laulala and Francis Saili at Munster, I was largely ignorant of “Islander” culture and what it entailed.

Happily, I have had no choice but to familiarise myself given the demographics of my Grenoble team this season.

I play alongside guys who either grew up or whose parents grew up in Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Cook Islands, and Tahiti.

In fact out of the English speaking playing group, I am the only European. That has been the most interesting and most challenging part of coming to Grenoble, and certainly the most enjoyable. It gives me a much better perspective of what it is like to be an outsider and what life is like for people on the other side of the world, where priorities and motivations are completely different.

The most eye-opening feature of it all is the attachment each one of them has to their culture.

They are proud of their heritage in a very visible way; proud of their language, their traditions, their history. One of the lads has never been to his parents’ home in Samoa but speaks the language fluently. This is commonplace. Indeed, Edgar told me that he got a clip around the ear if he was caught speaking English instead of Tongan in the family home.

Seeing this commitment to their culture has been a humbling experience for someone who, apart from a splash of Scottish blood on my mother’s side, is as Irish as Irish can be. I’ve become quite ashamed that the Irish language holds such a maligned place in society today. With the recent chatter (once again) about whether to remove its core status as a school subject, it’s not hard to imagine that Irish is going to be on the receiving end of an onslaught in the coming years.

“I love Irish culture,” I always told people. Sure I enjoyed going to trad sessions and having a few pints of Guinness. I had The Dubliners playing in the car. I usually had the bacon and cabbage at the carvery across the road from my house. When I was asked to speak a few sentences in a language I learned for 14 years however, the depth of this love was examined and it made me uncomfortable.

I was a good Irish student. I got a B2 in higher level which indicates a pretty decent grasp of things. After my conversation with Edgar, I resolved to start learning Irish again. I downloaded DuoLingo, a pretty useful language application that is ideal for casual learning, and did the test to determine my level. I “tested out” of zero skills; not a single one. Essentially DuoLingo was telling me that my Irish was about the same standard as someone in Ghana who picked up their phone one day and decided to learn it.

While I laughed, it was quite embarrassing. I think it fair enough to say that many people in the country would have similar success, which tells me something is very wrong. How can we learn a language for 14 years and barely speak a word of it a short time later?

I follow some fluent Irish speakers on Twitter for whom I have the utmost respect and admiration, including Peter Kavanagh of the Green Party and Osgur Ó Ciardha, co-founder of Pop Up Gaeltacht.

They are adamant that the way Irish is taught in schools is not a valid excuse.

My own experience leads me to disagree. I remember one particular period in fourth class of primary school. I was nine years old and learning the dreaded Modh Coinníolach (conditional tense). As someone quite rightly pointed out to me before, the conditional tense is a crucial part of communication in any language. Of course it is; but is it really that crucial for nine-year-olds? I am certain some of my classmates decided there and then that Irish was not for them, nor would it ever be.

I believe Irish should be compulsory in school, without question.

However, it must be recognised that a “compulsory” tag automatically engenders a certain amount of resentment and pushback in people.

This was my experience of maths. I hated it. I cursed the education system every day for forcing me through the torture of trying to learn things I had neither the desire nor the ability to excel at.

For some people, that is their experience of Irish. If they are like me, they probably made up their mind pretty early on that it was something to be endured, not enjoyed.

Something has to change. Interestingly, I never witnessed the same negativity in people when it came to studying French or German. In my experience, continental languages had a much greater emphasis on communication, with analysis of literature being left aside.

I’m not an expert on education. But I do know that if this issue is going to be looked at as more than an inconvenience by people with the power to address it, pressure will have to come from all walks of life, not just the passionate native speakers we hear on the radio from time to time.

There’s nothing like moving abroad to make you appreciate your home. I realise I give out about Ireland a lot but moving to France has opened my eyes to the many wonderful and unique thing we can be proud of.

Before coming here, I never considered our beautiful language to be one of them. We can drink all the stout and listen to all the Luke Kelly we want.

If we can’t speak Irish, I would argue that we don’t really love our culture as much as we think we do.

Fudge the Numbers All You Want- Homelessness Policy is Failing – Limerick Leader

By Sarah Jane Hennelly and Duncan Casey

Another day, another government announcement that has us shaking our heads in disbelief. On Tuesday it was the Department of Housing’s turn again as they released their homelessness report for the month of June. Another new record to be ashamed of—9,872 people in emergency accommodation, including 3,824 children.

This started as a problem, became a crisis and has long since become a national scandal. The issue rumbles on so steadily that we are at risk of becoming immune to figures like this. It is clear the government already have. In his statement this week, Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy said he was “happy to see a decrease in the number of children.”

The decreases he talks about is two children. Two out of nearly 4,000. That he feels entitled to try and spin such awful figures in a positive way speaks volumes about how low he and his colleagues in Fine Gael have set the bar for themselves. 

This isn’t the Minister’s first attempt to spin the numbers. In March he claimed that local authorities had been overstating the number of people living in emergency accommodation. At his department’s insistence, Limerick City & County Council removed 24 families from their monthly register. The Irish Times later revealed that these families were still living in the Focus Ireland Family Hub on Childers Road, and were indeed still homeless.

Last month, he published a report which called for homelessness figures to be reported quarterly instead of monthly. While he claimed this would allow for better analysis, Focus Ireland quite rightly called the move what it was—“a communications strategy for bad news”.

The reason for these repeated efforts to divert and deflect is clear. The government’s housing policy has failed, in dramatic fashion. The latest figures are particularly noteworthy as this month marks two years since the launch of Rebuilding Ireland, the government’s plan to “tackle homelessness in a comprehensive manner.”

What does the evidence tell us about the plan’s success? If I were Eoghan Murphy, I would be trying to spin the numbers as well, frantically. Total homelessness has increased by 50%. The number of children is up 75%.

Arguably the most shocking statistic is here in the Mid West. The number of homeless families in Limerick and Clare has increased by 750%, from 11 to 88. This number continues to rise and the vast majority of these families are in the Limerick City (area? constituency?). Emergency service providers are at the end of their tether as they try to accommodate an every increasing number of people who find themselves in such a traumatic situation.

What can the government do differently? The dogs in the street know that the obvious solution is to build more housing units. This is not happening at the pace required. What else can be done?

The issue of vacant homes is particularly relevant to Limerick. Anyone that spends time in the city is familiar with the large number of vacant and neglected buildings in and around our Georgian Quarter. These are not just an eyesore, they are a barrier to solving the housing problem. It is unacceptable that landlords allow their properties to sit there and decay while a housing crisis unfolds.

The government needs to introduce a vacant housing levy for vacant dwellings. The duration should be set by each local authority. In Census 2016 there were over 8,000 vacant units in Limerick. Even if this has decreased, we know there are several thousand empty homes across the city and county. A massive resource that could help combat the issue.

Introducing the levy would not just benefit people that are at risk of homelessness. Rents in Limerick have risen by 17% in the past year, far higher than the national average. This follows a 12% increase the year before. This trend is unsustainable for tenants. Dozens or hundreds of vacant homes appearing on the market would stabilise the cost of rent.

Of course, a 17% increase in rent would not happen in a properly regulated rental market. Eye watering increases like this are what drive families into homelessness. Current measures to provide rent certainty are totally ineffective. Limerick is not considered a rent pressure zone, meaning landlords are free to increase rents by 17% or more.

Rent caps should apply to the entire country and be set at the rate of inflation. Again, this would stabilise the rental market not just in Limerick but nationwide, and soften the burden on people who are struggling to stay in their rental homes.

Earlier this year we learned that the Gardens International site on Henry Street will be fully let, bringing an anticipated 750 jobs to the city. While this news is welcomed by everyone, little thought has been given to where these people will live, or the effect such an influx could have on the rental market.

A 17% increase in rents could become 25 or 30% given how poorly supplied the market is, thrusting more families into the arms of emergency service providers and out of comfort and security.

In addition to these measures, there is a clear need for the establishment of a single agency with responsibility for delivering housing. Currently, there are too many bodies to point fingers at and blame for the lack of progress. An agency which takes an accountable, hands on approach by project managing the provision of new homes deliver far more quickly and effectively than the current system ever will.

Rebuilding Ireland has failed. The Government has failed. It is time for Minister Murphy and his party colleagues to take a step back and accept that a radical change is needed in their approach. Thousands of Irish children are already growing up without somewhere to call home. There will be thousands more in another two years, if policy does not change. The power to solve this problem is there, in the government’s hands. They need to show some desire to use it.


Housing First Initiative – Mid West Simon

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By Duncan Casey

It is no secret that Ireland is in the grip of a homelessness crisis. This is not a new phenomenon but the scale of what is being experienced today is unprecedented. Traditional methods of coping with the needs of those at risk are being stretched. Service providers have had to find new ways of delivering support in order to make a lasting difference in the lives of people whose luck has run out, or who never had any to begin with.

One of these is Housing First. Housing First is an innovative approach to tackling long term homelessness that was developed in the United States during the 90’s. It operates with one simple principle — provide housing first, then combine this with support services in the areas of physical and mental health, education, employment and substance abuse.

Clients of the programme are the most at risk people in society. They have rarely had any stability in their lives and have become trapped in a cycle of damaging behaviour which is almost impossible to pull themselves out of. That is, without a programme like Housing First.

Mid West Simon piloted the project in Limerick in 2016 and now have a dedicated Housing First team of five. Initially there was a degree of scepticism about how the project would run. The results speak for themselves. The programme has had a 100% success rate in the past twelve months, meaning that clients have remained in their original properties since the day they walked in. Staff at Mid West Simon tell me they have blossomed. They all pay their rent, are engaging with every service provided and are in and out of the office every day.

The reality is that in a chaotic situation such as sleeping rough or living in a hostel, it is very difficult for someone to put themselves in a position to tackle the major issues in their life that led them to becoming homeless in the first place. Somewhere to call home and a helping hand to guide them along the road to a normal life make an enormous difference.

Unfortunately the lack of property available in Limerick is a major obstacle to the programme’s continued success. We live in a landlord’s market and they are often reluctant to engage with a programme like this. There is a misconception about this being a stressful, unpredictable, insecure tenancy. The reality is very different.

First, the programme makes financial sense in many ways. While landlords need to be able to take rent allowance and HAP payments, they will never be asked to lease a property for less than the market value. The programme then acts as a free property management service for the landlord. Mid West Simon will collect rent each month from the client and will carry out any small maintenance work that the property needs, similar to the RAS scheme.

Additionally, utilities can be looked after through the Household Budget Scheme. This is a national budget scheme run through An Post which allows people to pay bills through the Post Office at source, when welfare payments come in. This provides even more reassurance for the landlord.

Anyone familiar with Limerick City knows there is a huge amount of vacant property around. Landlords may not be in a position to renovate these to a suitable standard for renting. The government’s Repair and Lease Scheme allows an approved housing body such as Mid West Simon to provide the cost of the repairs up front on the condition that it will be leased back to them for a specified period. This is a very attractive incentive for landlords who are not in a position to bring vacant dwellings back to the market.

There tends to be a worry that landlords will have to deal with problematic tenants. Mid West Simon steps in here. Tenancy support is provided 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If there is ever an issue, the Housing First team will deal with it immediately. The landlord will not be waiting two or three days for something to be dealt with. He or she is entitled to ring at any time, whatever the problem might be. Mid West Simon are currently in a very strong position to ensure that tenancies are maintained without issue.

Properties are sought anywhere in the city or county. Each property is another person taking the first steps on the path to a normal, happy life. A handful of dwellings will make a real difference.

I have come to know the staff at Mid West Simon quite well over the past number of years. I have seen how hard they have to fight for every inch of ground gained in the battle against homelessness. I cannot recall anything getting the staff as motivated, passionate and enthusiastic as the introduction of Housing First. There is genuine belief that this could be a game changer. If the team get the resources they need, many lives will be changed and saved. Before that happens however, they need access to more property.

Anyone landlord interested in learning more about the programme can contact Mid West Simon at 061 608980 or simply call into the office at Steamboat Quay on Dock Road.

In Munster, the kids are more than alright – Irish Examiner

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By Duncan Casey

Dismal weather spoiled what should have been a thrilling game of expansive rugby at Thomond Park yesterday. Two capable sides were hampered by the conditions. Although schools finals are rarely as entertaining as the games that precede them, the rain and wind ruined this one from a neutral’s perspective.

A well-drilled and physically imposing PBC got the better of Glenstal up front and deserved to win the cup for the first time since 2010. Glenstal must continue to wait. Despite losing, they’ve cemented their place in the hierarchy of Munster schools’ rugby. Making it to a cup final with a student population of just over 200 is no easy task, and shows how far the Murroe dwellers have come in recent times.

Schools’ rugby itself has transformed lately. This year, in particular, I was blown away by a number of things. The first and most obvious to the naked eye is the physical condition of the boys. They are simply enormous. I left Glenstal in 2009. Back then, each team had two, maybe three, guys that were considered big. Now it’s eight or nine. They are strong, powerful, athletic, and skillful in a way that would have put the schools’ sides of 2009 to shame.

One complaint people have made over the years is that youngsters coming out of school in Munster cannot compete physically with their Leinster counterparts. Perhaps that was a fair assessment in the past but it is not the case any more. This is evident in the newest crop of Munster academy prospects.

I played alongside Ronan Coffey for Shannon as I made my return from injury against UL Bohs a few weeks ago. He was one of the biggest men on the pitch at 108kg and was underage to play schools’ rugby again this year. Fineen Wycherley, who made his Munster debut a couple weeks ago, is 115kg. The fact the coaches had the confidence to select a 19-year-old in the second row in today’s professional game shows how physically mature these guys have become.

The second and more impressive feature of modern schools’ rugby is the skill level. The gameplans on show in the Munster Senior Cup this year are light years ahead of what they were when I was playing. Back then, being able to identify and stay in your designated pod of forwards was pretty revolutionary. It was a case of running around the corner or running hard lines off the out-half. Little else came into the equation. This was not due to a lack of coaching prowess but simply because that is where the game was in 2009.

This year, each side played with two lines of attack. Forwards moved the ball out the back of hit lines to a back, who either moved it wide, left it inside for a trail runner coming at pace, or had a go himself. Offloading is no longer something that draws gasps from onlookers at schools matches, it is expected and executed with the finesse of a Pacific Islander.

These developments are reflected in the quality coming out of our schools. Nine of the matchday 23 who lined out for Ireland U20 last night were from Munster.

Yesterday was one of those days where you are as well off kicking the ball into the lineout as throwing it. I cringed for both hookers each time the ball went into touch, knowing how difficult a task they had to negotiate. Both sides struggled in this department. PBC, however, managed to retain enough of their own ball to give themselves a platform and gain territory, something Glenstal desperately sought during the second half.

In terms of star performers, it was hard to look past PBC captain and No8 Jack O’Sullivan. On such a miserable day, it was a time for big ball carriers to step up and grab the game by the horns — that is exactly what he did. He ran excellent lines off his scrum-half and generated plenty of go forward for his pack off the scrum, in much the same way Paddy Butler did for Rockwell years ago. I’m sure I’ll be seeing Jack joining his cousins, Niall and Rory Scannell, in Munster this year.

Rory Clarke and Mark Fleming led the effort in the Glenstal pack but a number of handling errors at crucial moments meant they rarely got past four or five phases of play. They struggled to break PBC down as a result.

Glenstal out-half Ben Healy is one to watch. I remember travelling out to a rugby summer camp in Glenstal with JJ Hanrahan and a few others when Ben was in second year. Afterwards, JJ wouldn’t shut up about how impressed he was by Ben’s goal kicking and attitude. He has continued in that vein and has turned heads around the province. Still only in fifth year, he will be responsible for ensuring the hunger his teammates showed this season continues into next year.

As biased as I understandably am, I do believe a dry day may have seen a reversal of fortunes based on what I saw Glenstal do this season. You have to play the hand you are dealt with, however, and PBC did so in a superior fashion.