Lions Origin Club: Wanderers embracing the past and future

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Wanderers legend Ronnie Dawson

As one of the oldest rugby clubs in Ireland, it should come as no surprise that the history of Wanderers F.C. is interwoven deep in the fabric of The British & Irish Lions.

Founded in 1870 by a group of former Trinity College players at Dublin University, the club has produced more than a dozen men who have gone on to wear the famous red jersey.

From the likes of Andrew Clinch, Thomas Crean and Robert Johnston on the 1896 Tour to 1959 Tour captain Ronnie Dawson, Wanderers and the Lions have enjoyed a long association.

Wanderers can also count legendary five-time Lions tourist Mike Gibson among their illustrious list of names, having followed in Dawson’s footsteps after beginning his senior career at the club.

Then there’s Wanderers legend and Ireland flanker Phil Matthews, who pulled on the famous red jersey for the Lions in their 1989 centenary celebration match against France in Paris.

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Phil Matthews

But the importance of the club to the local community is just as crucial to its members as its illustrious list of tourists, with many considering Wanderers a home away from home.

President Simon Hoffman has been involved for more than 30 years, including his entire playing career, and treasures the club’s role in the local area as well as its Lions Origin status.

“It’s one of the oldest clubs in Ireland, dating back to 1870, so we just celebrated our 150th year and I think like any club with that history behind it, our community stretches far and wide,” he said.

Lions Origin Clubs are those that have helped shape the future of the Lions by producing and guiding players on their rugby journey

“In terms of the community, we sometimes like to view ourselves as the third place that many people call their home. They have their home, work and Wanderers as their third place.

“The Lions heritage and association is really huge and it’s fantastic for the club. I think rugby has aspects to it that are unique to rugby and the Lions epitomises that.

“Our association with the Lions, going back to the late 1880s when Wanderers players first represented the Lions all the way through to more recent times, is fantastic for us.

“It shows that heritage, it shows how rugby and, particularly club rugby, looks at things differently and it’s something we certainly value. Being a Lions Origin Club means an awful lot to us.

Wanderers Victoria Crosses

“The legacy of the Lions goes back over a hundred years and we’ve had an affinity with them since the very, very start. We’ve had Lions on the earliest Tours who were club members.

“A couple of our club members went on to win Victoria Crosses and the Lions was also part of their legacy, while we’ve also had Ronnie Dawson who captained the Lions in ‘50s.

“In more recent times we had Vinny Cunningham who played with the club after representing the Lions so there is a long link and heritage between Wanderers and the Lions.”

Classic Match: Heroic 1959 Lions win at Eden Park

While the majority of Wanderers’ Lions went on the very earliest Tours, with Clinch and Crean playing all four of the Tests against the Springboks as part of the third touring party.

Crean went on to serve with the British Army during the Second Boer War and was awarded the Victoria Cross, as was his fellow Wanderers teammate and Lions tourist Johnston.

Robertson Smyth and Wallace brothers Joseph and James followed six years later on the 1903 Tour, again to South Africa, with Joseph chosen for all three Tests in the pack.

James Clinch then became the first Lion to follow in his father’s footsteps in 1924’s visit to South Africa, before scrum-half Paul Murray toured New Zealand in 1930.

But Wanderers’ most famous tourist remains Dawson, who joined in 1950 and played his club rugby in the first XV as he led the Lions during a 3-1 series defeat to the All Blacks.

And Joe McDermott, Wanderers’ Leinster branch representative and IRFU committee member, believes the club’s links to the Lions continue to inspire the next generation of players.

“Wanderers have had quite a lot of players represent the Lions over the years, the first ones back in the late 1800s with Arthur Meares, Andrew Clinch, Tom Crean and Robert Johnston,” he said.

“Crean and Johnston were two of the players who got the Victoria Cross and they were on the Tour in 1896 and then in 1903 we had Joseph and James Wallace, as well as James Clinch a couple of decades later.

Wanderers Ronnie Dawson

“The importance of having a link to somebody like Ronnie Dawson or anyone else who plays on a Lions Tour, or any indeed international players, is very important to us.

“We have a thriving mini and youth section and they come into the clubhouse and they see the photographs, they see the prints of the invitation that Ronnie Dawson got.

“It’s a letter that was sent to him to ask him would he like to captain the Lions, to say that he’d been selected, and it’s great for people coming in to visit the club and see something like that.

“Kids in particular have aspirations, they start their rugby somewhere and it’s an important thing to have role models, be they internationals, players playing for Leinster or for the Lions.

“The Lions in particular is such a special thing, the Lions is so unique. it just brings something special. It’s great in our history to say that we are a Lions Origin Club.

“It’s important for Wanderers. We were contributing players to the Lions from the very earliest days. That is something that stays with you, it’s in the history of the club.”

But while the club is always keen to embrace its past, the future also remains right at the forefront and has seen Wanderers develop a thriving women’s section in recent years.

Sarah Gibney played for the women’s team when it was first formed and has since gone on to become Wanderers’ first female executive member, now holding the role of honorary secretary.

“I joined Wanderers in 2015,” she said. “I had grown up around rugby but never had the opportunity to play it in school, just getting into other things in college so I wasn’t that involved.

“I started playing tag rugby socially and I was down at the club for a social event and they approached me and said they were setting up a women’s team, would I want to try out.

“I thought, ‘absolutely’ – having grown up and watched my dad, gone to matches and been around rugby for so long, I was just really keen to give it a go and I just loved it.

“I’ve seen it grow from four or five people throwing a ball around to a team that won some silverware in the first year and then has just grown from there.

“From that a lot of the girls have gone on to get involved in the club, in the social side of things, in communications, volunteering, joining the executive like myself and others.

“That’s been really important in terms of growing the club and some of the development aspects that are now going forward, it’s a really exciting time.”

Wanderers women

The club’s future ambitions include plans for a new development at Wanderers’ Merrion Road base, creating a new sports pavilion in place of the existing clubhouse to benefit the community.

“While we have a huge heritage looking backwards, we don’t limit ourselves looking forwards and we have plans to grow and move forward,” Wanderers president Hoffman added.

“One of the great things about the club is while we have Lansdowne Road as our headquarters, the heart and soul of the club is in our training ground in Merrion Road.

“We have now significantly decided that that’s where we want to grow, we want to grow our home and have plans to develop that site for the next 150 years with increased facilities.

“That is our home and we have planning permission to develop a significant facility for ourselves in Merrion Road. Everyone is excited and pulling together behind this project.”

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