Tennis star Niland dives into world's biggest tag festival
IT is a whole new ballgame for retired Irish tennis star Conor Niland.
Standing in the car park of Old Crescent Rugby Club in Limerick on Saturday, his 13 teammates quickly tried to explain the rules of tag rugby to him.
The annual 'Pig 'n' Porter' tag rugby festival was about to begin and Mr Niland's team, The Honey Badgers -- a motley collection of athletes of varying ability -- had aspirations of glory.
More used to racquets and clay surfaces, Mr Niland -- who was forced to retire from tennis last April because of a persistent hip injury - was still adjusting to his velcro shorts and boots as he was roared on by the huge crowds watching.
Now in its 12th year, up to 120 teams took part in the world's biggest tag-rugby event which has established itself as one of the highlights of the Irish summer.
The festival initially started out in 2002 as a 12-team tournament organised by rugby players from Old Crescent's thirds team.
However, such is the popularity of tag rugby -- a non-contact version of rugby played by as many women as men -- the event is a recession-beating success with 5,000 players and spectators attending this year.
Alas for Mr Niland and The Honey Badgers, they were knocked out in the group stages despite winn-ing two games with the tenn-is player scoring a hat-trick of tries in their final fixture.
There was even consolation in the fact that one of their defeats -- by just three points -- came at the hands of former Munster rugby stars Mossie Lawlor, Mike Prendergast and Clem Casey who now ply their skills with The Bluebirds.
"I've been down here a couple of times to watch and it is great fun, but this is the first time I played in it," Mr Niland said.
"My friend Alan Owens roped me into this so I've him and a few more to thank for this spectacle."
The last time Mr Niland played rugby was when he was 14, while attending Crescent College Comprehensive.
"I need to learn a bit more about the rules of tag rugby. It took a full game to get used to it, but I managed to get a few tries in the end," he said.
"We'll be back next year to win it," he added.
On the next pitch, Leanne Moore -- who sang with Jedward at this year's Eurovision -- was having more success.
Togging out with The Protagonists, Ms Moore made it all the way to the final before losing out.
"I haven't missed this in the last four or five years and I nearly didn't have a team this year, but The Protagonists took me in at the last minute," she said.
"I absolutely love it -- despite the fact that I got a few injuries in the past," she added.
Chief organiser Paudie O'Connor said the antics and flirtation during the late-night festivities would be even more intense than what took place on the playing fields.
"We have got four or five marriages from this since it began and by the looks of things, we'll have a few more from this year yet," he joked.