Five years and one month since your last visit. Five years and one month during which time Munster Rugby has dwelled at the highest levels of European rugby. In doing so Munster rugby has defined pride of a province, a cultural identity, and a way of understanding life and the sport of rugby: The Munster way. And during these past 5 years, the Munster Academy, UCC, Shannon, and most recently Tralee and other teams and clubs from Ireland have also enjoyed firsthand the Basque spirit and "craic".
Your first visit in 2005 was the first major event of international rugby to take place in the southern Basque Country, where soccer is king. That weekend changed many minds. Prior to that event, the obsession with soccer and even animosity to rugby among some caused Donostia to miss out on proposals to organize similar events. (One exception being June 6, 1998 when the Barbarian selection of the north and southern Basque Country*, "Euskarians", inaugurated Anoeta Stadium for rugby, playing a friendly match against the province of Ulster, with some 6000 spirited local spectators).
After your wonderful visit in 2005 (team and fans alike!) everything changed and much of the old antagonism toward rugby has since faded away. In its place has risen an eagerness to learn about rugby and to become a part of that special community called rugby supporters. For that I say "cheers Munster"!
Today, Donostia, Gipuzkoa, all of the Basque Country, and in particular, my entire family (my father-in-law is a Kerryman and we spend many Summer holidays in Caherdaniel between Freddy's and the Blind Piper,) look forward to having the honour of welcoming and accompanying the incomparable Red Army and the extraordinary boys in red.
Your visit also coincides with an exceptional moment for us. This year the Rugby Federation of the province of Gipuzkoa, of which I am president, will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Fifty years ago, a pair of crazy adventurers, Mr. Almirall and Mr. Odriozola, who had known rugby in their student days in Spain, decided to bring this fantastic sport to the Basque Country. Later, with the help of French Basque rugby greats such as Gerard Murillo (who Tony Ward, Fergus Slattery, Moss Keane, Mike Gibson, etc, had the pleasure of knowing and learning from in the 70s and early 80s), rugby grew and has come to occupy an important place in the hearts of many Basques like myself.
Today Gipuzkoa rugby is in the same debate that Irish rugby was in the end of the 20th century; at a crossroads between professionalism and amateurism, between club level and provincial level, battling to be seen and valued in a society dominated by other sports. We are greatly inspired by what Irish rugby has achieved in the past decade and we are dedicated to following the example set by Ireland and Munster. Perhaps one day you will even see the Basque Country in international competition!
I cannot end without sending a big hello to Donncha O'Callaghan, Peter Stringer, Paul O'Connell and Antony Foley, as well as Brian O'Brian, Niall O'Donovan, staff and management members; "The boss" Garret Fitzgerald, Bryan Murphy, Jerry Holland, Jack Kiely, Pat Geraghty and Co. And of course a special salute to the great Quinnie. I, as a former back row, understand the dark art of being a Flanker. Like a great wine...you only get better with age. You are all a reference for my children, Cormac and Killian.
So, from Munster supporter number 14875 .... C'mon MUNSTER !!!!!
On behalf of the Gipuzkoa Rugby Federation and the people of Gipuzkoa ...
Céad míle fáilte!
*Northern and southern" Basque Country refers to the fact that the border between France and Spain crosses through the Basque Country dividing it in two parts, northern and southern. However, for Basques, there is only one nation that extends from Bilbao to Bayonne ... Euskal Herria.