Player Profile: Fionn Gilbert

The arrival of a towering Irish lock has had the Marist St Pats faithful talking on the sidelines, particularly after an outstanding performance against Old Boys-University. We caught up with Fionn Gilbert, who arrived from Dublin last month.

Tell us about home and your rugby background?

I was born in Dublin and have grown up in a little suburb called Marino, no more than a ten minute drive from the city centre. I still live at home with my Mum and Dad, Cliona & Gary, and my younger brother, Ruadhán.

I was introduced to rugby at the age of six or seven for my local club, Clontarf, which to this day, I still play for. I tried our national sports of Gaelic football and hurling for a year or so, but soon realised rugby was the only sport for me.

To become a professional rugby player in Ireland, there are two initial pathways - school pathway and club pathway (which in later years, merge together). I played all of my underage rugby with Clontarf (club pathway).

I went to a local school called Mount Temple Comprehensive, which also had a rugby programme, however, it wasn’t the strongest. I represented Leinster at underage up to U20s (where I played against the Irish U20s of that year). When I left school, I remained with Clontarf and played two years of U20s rugby and then made my debut for the 1st XV in February 2020. I have played three full seasons since then.

In my first full season of senior rugby, our team won the All Ireland League 1A Division. The following season, we fell short in the final, and then reached the semi final in the season just finished, losing to the winners, Cork Constitution.

In the season just gone, I was also honoured to be selected for the Irish Clubs XV where we toured and played against a Portugal A side, winning 20-17. One of the proudest moments of my life so far for sure!

What is your favourite rugby memory? 

From a playing point of view, it would have to be either winning the All Ireland League 1A Division for my home club, or representing the Irish Clubs XV against Portugal. They were two pretty special days and it’s hard to pick between one or the other really!

There have been so many cool rugby memories as a spectator, but travelling to Murrayfield to watch Scotland vs Ireland in the 6 Nations last year with one of my best friends is probably the highlight. I really would love to travel around Europe and the world a bit more to watch more provincial and international games.

What brought you to New Zealand? And how have you found MSP? 

Matt Smith has a big part to play in me being here in Wellington. He played for my home club, Clontarf, when he was a young man and became really close friends with my Dad and a lot of Dad’s wider friend group.

Matt came back to Dublin for a reunion in February this year, where I met him properly for the first time and we had a long conversion over a pint of Guinness together. During Matt’s time back in Ireland this year, he saw our 1st XV play against Ballynahinch (a team from Northern Ireland), and I was playing that day. After my season finished with Clontarf this year (April 2024), Matt rang my Dad, and asked Dad would I have any interest in coming to play in New Zealand.

This came about as the head coach of Marist St Pats, Sean Horan (who also played for my home club, Clontarf, while Matt was in Dublin) wanted to try and establish an ongoing connection with MSP and Clontarf, where players can exchange for a season (or part of). Sean then rang me himself one evening and expressed his interest in inviting me over to New Zealand. After positive conversations with my work, my coach in Clontarf (Andy Wood, originally from Wellington himself) and other people, I rang Sean back and told him I would love to accept his invite. In only a couple of days later, I was on my first long haul journey to the other side of the world. 

I couldn’t speak more highly of MSP really! I have been made feel so welcome and have been looked after extremely well by all the players, the coaching and management group but also the supporters, life members and the Shamrock Club.

My home club has always held a strong community and family link, so it’s been a nice surprise to join a club in Wellington with similar values. It has also been a new challenge for me to be a part of a group that’s rebuilding and one that is in a slight transition period. I hope, by the time that I leave, that I will have left my stamp and a positive impact both on and off the field. 

What are the differences or similarities between rugby in Ireland and New Zealand? 

It’s an interesting question and I’ve had people from back home ask me to compare the two, and I find it hard to come to a final opinion. I do think they are different in some ways though.

Rugby back home is certainly extremely structured on both sides of the ball including set piece, all with advanced detail. Whereas, here in New Zealand, there are more bigger boys across the team who are comfortable to play out of shape on their own but still get across the gain-line, or make a dominant tackle flying up out of the defensive line on their own.

In the northern hemisphere, Kiwis are known for having the flare and I very quickly realised that a lot of the boys at Marist St Pats back their ability to throw the flare or the ‘behind the back offload’.

What have you enjoyed the most about Wellington so far? 

It’s been nice to have some time off from working full time back home because both playing and coaching in rugby can be quite time consuming. It’s allowed me to focus on training in the gym and on pitch for MSP as well as getting to see Wellington as a city.

The most enjoyable part of being in Wellington has been meeting some awesome people, both within Marist, but also connections that I have been introduced to through colleagues and friends from back in Ireland.

What do you hope to achieve while here both on and off the field? 

The main aim that I had coming over was to enjoy my rugby and go back a better rugby player by couple of percent, in particular, the contact area of the game (i.e. tackle, ball carry and breakdown).

Outside of that, as I work within rugby back home also, if I could make new connections, and observe and/or assist in any coaching environment while in Wellington, bringing back home a couple of ‘nuggets’ would give me a better appreciation for the game and potentially better me as a coach from it.

As I am only in New Zealand for approximately nine weeks, and with a main priority to play rugby with MSP, I knew I would find it difficult to see more of the country (both North and South Island). Maybe this will give me the urge to come back soon…

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