Terms like identity, values and culture can be bandied around quite a lot in today’s corporate world. Translating conceptual aspirations into everyday reality, however, takes a special kind of vision, and it would be difficult to find a better exemplar of this than Munster Rugby. The club’s website declares that, “The whole is mightier than the parts thanks to something innately powerful: a unique spirit and DNA that has been passed on through history and ancestry”. The site lists the club’s values as passion, ambition, excellence, integrity and community. Fine words indeed, but it takes more than vision to make them real and meaningful – it takes outstanding leadership.

Six months ago, in June 2019, Garrett Fitzgerald retired as CEO of Munster Rugby, a position he held for almost 20 years. Fitzgerald was the first CEO to be appointed to the province and was the longest serving provincial chief executive in Irish rugby. During those 20 years, he spearheaded the province’s remarkable rise in the professional era and oversaw some of the club’s greatest achievements, both on and off the field. While it is difficult to distil the Red Army’s successes under Garrett’s stewardship down to a finite number of highlights, landmark events include winning two European Cups and three Pro14 (or equivalent) League titles and the redevelopment of Munster’s two designated home grounds – Irish Independent Park, formally Musgrave Park, and Thomond Park, the club’s spiritual home. Such was the quality of the revamped Thomond Park that it was awarded the title of 'Best Rugby Stadium in the World' in 2013 following a vote by rugby supporters from across the globe.

Hailing from Knockraha in County Cork, Garrett Fitzgerald enjoyed early rugby success as a student at Christian Brothers College, Cork, where he won a Munster Schools Senior Cup medal in the 1970s. That piece of silverware was one of many highlights in an 18-year playing career, during which time he played in the front row for UCC and Cork Constitution. One of the most decorated coaches in Munster Schools rugby, Garrett began coaching at Under 13 level while he was teaching at CBC. With a Bachelor of Commerce from UCC, he taught business and accounting at the school for six years and was, by all accounts, an outstanding teacher. His coaching record at the school speaks for itself – he coached CBC to five Schools Senior Cup titles, one while he was teaching there and four in a row when he returned to the school in a coaching capacity while working with Lombard and Ulster Bank.

Garrett’s 19 years of unbroken service as a coach included working with the Irish Universities, Munster Under 20s and UCC. Fittingly, his most famous achievement as a coach came with the senior provincial team, when he led Munster from 1991 to 1994 and guided the team to an incredible win over then World Champions Australia in 1992.

Having the perfect mix of experience as player, teacher, coach and businessman under his belt and a passion for the game in his heart, Garrett Fitzgerald brought excellent credentials to the top job in Munster Rugby in 1999. The role of CEO in a sporting organisation is very different to that in other walks of life. Rather than selling products or offering services, the organisation deals almost exclusively in people. Garrett’s particular skill as CEO was in bringing people from disparate backgrounds together to work cohesively in pursuit of a common goal. The pool included the players, the coaching staff and a vast support team comprising analysts, medical and fitness personnel, nutritionists, physiotherapists, managers, development officers, administrators and marketing staff. Also unlike a lot of non-sporting organisations, Munster Rugby relies heavily on volunteers to guide the direction of the club and the development of the game. Garrett’s great skill was in welding the expertise of the professional staff on the Executive with the passion and dedication of the volunteer staff to get them all moving together in the same direction. He is a people person to the core and strongly believes in the power of mutual respect and shared purpose, and this, coupled with the passion he has for the game, made him an outstanding candidate for the job and enabled him to leave behind a legacy to be proud of.

A big part of that legacy is the Munster Rugby High Performance Centre at the University of Limerick. The location of the centre in Limerick is living proof of the extent to which Garrett Fitzgerald, a Cork man, put the greater good of Munster Rugby above all else. Garrett became CEO at a time of immense change in the game and at the club. At that time, half the senior squad trained in Cork and half in Limerick, which, as well as being less than ideal for the players, was a huge drain on resources. As the province flourished on the international stage in the professional game and the stakes grew higher and higher, the long-term dream of training together as a group in a single training centre became more and more important to fulfil. Where in the province that training centre would be based was always going to be a political issue. Driven by Garrett Fitzgerald, the overall consensus from within the club was that it did not matter where the centre was located so long as the team trained together in the best facilities available, and what was best for the players was best for Munster. (It’s little wonder Garrett has long been known as ‘the logical man from Knockraha’ within rugby circles.) Following a tender process involving CIT, LIT and UL, the best facilities were deemed to be in UL. Overseen by Garrett Fitzgerald for Munster Rugby and Dave Mahedy for UL, the state-of-the-art High Performance Centre was designed and built adjacent to the UL Arena, became occupied by the Red Army in September 2016 and was officially opened in April 2017. The University of Limerick is proud to host Munster Rugby on its campus and looks forward to doing so for many more years to come.

Before we do the honours, let us dwell for a moment on Garrett’s legendary negotiating skills. Many Munster player and coaching contracts were presided over by Garrett down through the years, all of which were underpinned by one of his strongest principles – showing respect for those you work with at all times. It may not have felt quite like that to Donncha O’Callaghan, however, when his contract was being renewed and he asked Garrett for a rise. Garrett’s immediate response to the request was, “You don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you live at home. What do you want more money for?” Suitably mollified, Donncha went away to think about it. After consulting with his buddies, he went back to Garrett and tried again, this time saying that he was thinking of buying a car.

Notwithstanding Donncha’s experience, we are delighted to welcome Garrett and his family here today to recognise his outstanding 20-year contribution to the game of rugby, to the province, to Limerick and to the local community.

Chancellor, I present to you Garrett Fitzgerald and ask that you confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.