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Rotuman Sports

From Irish Examiner Online (19 November 2009)

Divided loyalties for Ó hAilpín

By Pat Keane

HE’S the most recognisable face in Gaelic games yet anyone who doubts Seán Óg Ó hAilpín’s commitment to his Fijian roots should think again.

Cork’s last All-Ireland winning captain was in Dublin yesterday giving a ‘welcome to hurling’ type presentation to the touring Fijian rugby team. One exchange between him and a Fijian player was priceless.

Addressing the crowd — and an intimidating crowd of six-footers at that — Ó hAilpín asked if any of them had heard of his mother’s native land, Rotuma, an island off Fiji? A huge cheer arose as a Rotuma man was presented for Seán Óg’s embrace.

Cue an even bigger cheer when Seán Óg spoke in the island’s native tongue only for the rugby player to admit he’d never learnt the language!

The Na Piarsaigh man is clearly intensely proud of his heritage.

Perhaps, in another life, Seán Óg could have been a touring Fijian player himself preparing to face Ireland this weekend. Instead, he finds himself breaking off from his interview to sign a sliotar for a new Fijian friend.

"It’s great to see them here, I think the last Fijians that came here was about 20 years ago — and that was us," joked Ó hAilpín. "Growing up I would have shouted for Fiji in rugby one year and Ireland the next. This weekend, may the best team win. If Fiji are on top I’ll be shouting for them and if Ireland come back I’ll be shouting for them. The only winner is myself really because I can’t lose.’’

After Ó hAilpín’s presentation to the touring party he invited questions about the game of hurling.

He was asked about the foot wear that hurlers use, their protective head gear, the crowds they play to and, of course, the old chestnut about amateurism versus professionalism.

Ó hAilpín is content that they’ll jet out of Ireland with their minds broadened about Irish sport and Gaelic games in particular. But there’s one thing he’s disappointed about.

"It’s just a pity they are not playing in Croke Park," he said. "I was explaining about Croke Park to them and what it’s all about and it would have been nice for them to experience it."

There’s plenty of scope for Ó hAilpín to consider playing rugby himself, at least over the winter months.

His former Cork defensive colleague Diarmuid O’Sullivan could teach him a thing or two.

"I never thought of playing rugby here really, even over winter, because growing up I remember even playing (Gaelic) games on St Stephen’s Day, running off leagues from the year before," he said. "So I had no time for any other sports. Would I have played rugby if I had the time? Probably not because when you know hurling and football for 20 years or whatever it just comes more naturally.

"Rugby is also a more physical game. I can imagine if I went up to Donal O’Grady or John Allen and said ‘oh look sorry, I’ve got a rugby game’. That wouldn’t have gone down well."