The curtain-up at the new Aviva Stadium next Saturday will be a very proud day for one Ulsterman in particular.
Retired Portadown primary school principal Willie Gribben, who has given a life-time of service to rugby, will be wearing two hats on the occasion of the first ever game at the magnificent new €410million, 50,000-seater stadium.
In his capacity as manager of Ireland Under-18s Club team he has been closely involved in the development of upwards of 20 of the young players from the four provinces who will be lining out on composite Leinster-Ulster and Connacht-Munster sides.
And as a doyen of mini rugby — he introduced the format in Ulster almost 40 years ago and is chairman of the IRFU Mini Rugby Committee — he will have the pleasure of watching a dozen of his club’s under-12s perform in the superb new stadium.
“I’ll have a double interest for as well as enjoying seeing our own (Portadown’s) under-12s play I’ll also be watching a number of the players I’ve worked with up to under-18 level,” he said.
He is particularly pleased with the July 31 format which will showcase the youth game and mini rugby, the latter being the code’s fastest growing sector.
“Tens of thousands of youngsters of all abilities — girls as well as boys — are playing mini rugby throughout Ireland at weekends. It’s the entry point to the game which, at five or six years of age, is non-contact,” he said.
“With Aviva’s package having such a strong emphasis on rugby’s grassroots development I think it’s very apt that this is reflected in the decision to have two youth sides playing in the opening match at the stadium of which they are the sponsors.
“I’m delighted that they have managed to include mini rugby kids — under 12s — for a few minutes at half-time, too. They’re certainly looking forward to what will be a great day out for them and their families.
“I was at the black tie opening and was at the new stadium again recently to see where exactly the kids and their parents would be sitting on the day and once again I was overwhelmed. It really is superb. Even when you’re seeing it for a second time you think, ‘Wow, what a place’,” he said.
Portadown will play Connacht representatives Buccaneers, with Munster’s Ballincollig and Leinster’s Mullingar also squaring up, those being four clubs with a record of commitment to mini rugby the IRFU felt was deserving of recognition on the big day.
As for the main course, Ulster’s Johnny Bell and Gary Longwell will be working in tandem with Leinster’s Colin McEntee in overseeing the Ulster-Leinster team.
The Connacht-Munster team will be coached by Connacht’s Nigel Carolan and Munster academy coaches Ken O’Connell and Ian Sherwin.
Over 40,000 tickets have been sold. No tickets will be posted at this stage and any being bought now must be collected at the stadium (Mon-Fri 9am-4.45pm).
Leinster-Ulster squad: A Boyle (Leinster), C Carey (Ulster), P Carroll (Leinster), S Coughlan Murray (Leinster), P du Toit (Leinster), C Gilroy (Ulster), I Henderson (Ulster), R Hynes (Leinster), P Jackson (Ulster), A Kelly (Leinster), S Lecky (Ulster), P Marks (Ulster), C Marsh (Leinster), L Marshall (Ulster), M McAuley (Ulster), M McGroarty (Leinster), D McGuigan (Ulster), E McMahon (Leinster), M Moore (Leinster), J Murphy (Ulster), C Spence (Ulster), J Tracy (Leinster).
Connacht-Munster squad: R Barry (Munster), C Boland (Connacht), S Buckley (Munster), S Leydon (Connacht), L Cahill (Munster), A Conneely (Connacht), J Costigan (Munster), M Dolan (Connacht), J Holland (Munster), D Horgan (Munster), L Kunz (Munster), T Leader (Connacht), E McKeon (Connacht), I Mullarkey (Munster), P Mullen (Munster), R O’Herlihy (Munster), D Qualter (Connacht), G Quinn-McDonogh (Munster), J Rael (Munster), B Sargent (Munster), A Spring (Connacht), K Stokes (Munster), S Wooton (Connacht).