This year will see Dublin University Football Club (DUFC), the world’s oldest rugby club in existence celebrate its 160th anniversary. DUFC, founded in 1854 prides itself on not only being the oldest Irish rugby club but for its continuous active existence throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a time in which many other clubs disappeared. Guy’s Hospital Football Club, the central London based rugby club has claimed it was actually founded earlier in 1843, but this date is contested due to a lack of any contemporary records while the club died out at various points in the late nineteenth century.
Throughout the 160 years a number of notable players have gone through DUFC, many of who went on to be Ireland internationals such as Lawrence Bulger, Andrew Clinch and Philip Orr. More recently DUFC has seen the likes of Malcolm O’Kelly (Leinster), Roger Wilson (Ulster), Kieran Lewis (Munster & Leinster), Scott Lavalla (USA Eagles) and last week’s ‘Man of the Match’ in Ireland’s 28-6 victory over Scotland, Jamie Heaslip. Speaking to DUFC’s Director of Rugby and 1st XV coach, Tony Smeeth, he remembers Heaslip’s time in Trinity vividly. “The only club rugby he ever played was for us,” Smeeth explains. “He literally went from our first team to their [Leinster’s] first team. He was never a sub, he was just one of those players who had great talent. His brothers were all here too.”
During Heaslip’s time with DUFC, the 1st XV team managed to reach Division One of the All-Ireland League, where they currently stand (albeit in the form of Division 1B due to a change in the league set-up). Smeeth, who has been with DUFC since 1998 has noticed a real transformation within the club during his time here and recruiting from secondary school level seems to be a key component of this success. “The year before I came in the club was struggling,” says Smeeth. “All the best players within Trinity weren’t playing for Trinity. And that’s the big problem. Just because someone comes to Trinity doesn’t mean they’re going to play for Trinity. But, I’d say 95% of the good players, the top players in Trinity are playing for us now and it has been that way for a long tome, in fact it’s even been 100% at times.”
Smeeth adds “we’re recruiting out of schools now, we don’t leave it to people to come to Trinity.” Each year Smeeth sends out around 200 letters to possible prospectus students who have shown talent at school and underage level. I wonder what is the pull factor for players coming to Trinity over local rivals UCD, whose Belfield grounds boast vast sporting facilities. “Academically, it [Trinity] sells itself,” Smeeth explains. “You know you step out of Ireland, no one has heard of UCD. That’s the reality.” All will be decided between the two colleges in this year’s annual Colours match, which is set to take place on 7th March.
Facility wise, this is an area that is set to change with College Park being revamped with a brand new pitch and lights to accompany it. “A facility to match the location, because the location is fantastic,” Smeeth exclaims. The pitch is set to be unveiled this September and will be followed by the annual 1854 dinner.
Smeeth, who is originally from England, spent ten years living and coaching in Seattle, while also founded the USA Under 19s programme in 1992. For the past three years he has spent his summers working with the USA Eagles yet seems content both in Dublin and within Trinity’s walls.
Today DUFC boasts an active membership of around 150 players that includes six men’s teams and one women’s team. The Ladies team was set up in 1996 and were winners of the inaugural Women’s Intervarsity Cup in 2012, named after former club President Kay Bowen. The club also has a number of other accolades, most notably 19 Leinster Club Senior Cups, and two All-Ireland U20 Championships. Despite a difficult few months prior the Christmas break, with the 1st XV regrouping having lost some very strong players from last year’s pack including Leinster Academy player Cathal Marsh, Smeeth remains optimistic. “We were poor up to Christmas but now I think we’re turning a corner. Hopefully we’ll get out of the relegation zone now.” While a relegation battle may be on the cards for the 1st XV, what seems certain is the continued growth and success of DUFC under Smeeth, Kay Bowen and others. With 2014 marking the 160th anniversary as well the refurbishment of College Park, the future looks bright, and here’s hoping with another Jamie Heaslip in the making.