Anyone who knows me will be aware that I do like to have a ‘project’ on the go. And, for maximum satisfaction, it must have a ‘product’ at the end.
Few have been bigger – nor more awe-inspiring – in recent times than the Oliver Turkington Memorial Dinner, which took place last month.
In brief explanation, 25 years ago I was one of 21 lucky teenagers chosen to tour Japan with the Coleraine Inst 1st XV squad. We were the first Irish school, North or South, to play rugby in the Far East. And it was an incredible experience.
Moving the clock forward to 2012, I had an idea; we should have a silver anniversary union! Not a particularly original idea at first, but a well-intentioned one. However, there were a couple of complicating factors.
The first was a combination of geography and the passage of time. I was only personally in contact with around half a dozen of the touring party, and hadn’t seen many of the others for two decades or more. But I was aware that most of the group were now scattered right across the UK or, in some cases, living even further afield. How could I find them and, if I did, why would they want to travel great distances for a meal or a few drinks with people – old teammates or not – who they might not even recognise?
The second issue was more poignant. One of our number, Oliver Turkington, had tragically passed away in 2007 after a brave and prolonged battle with cancer. 'Turkey' was the player of the tour and the heartbeat of our team in Japan. So, whatever we did, Oliver and his legacy had to be at its core.
Over the next few months, I made contact with Oliver’s brother, Bruce, and several former teammates to seek their views. Bruce and I then met in Belfast in January of this year and, over a beer, the Oliver Turkington Memorial Dinner was born. Rather than a few old friends having a quiet night out, it would be a much grander affair open to anyone and everyone. Crucially, all proceeds would go to charity, half to Cancer Research UK and half to fund the development of young rugby talent at Coleraine Inst. Perfect.
The next few weeks were manic, firstly to set a date and gain the school’s consent to hold the event in its main hall. As luck would have it, Richard Beggs - the current 1st XV coach – was also a member of the Japan ’89 tour squad and outdid himself in manoeuvring through the bureaucratic maze to bring this about.
Meanwhile, relying primarily on social media, I set off on the hunt to track down my missing teammates. Within a few short weeks – with one exception, who was never found - I had them all. In the meantime, the legendary Willie John McBride – captain of the all-conquering British & Irish Lions - accepted my invitation to be principal speaker.
It now was time to go public with the launch of a prolonged media relations campaign, backed up on Twitter and also through a dedicated Facebook event page, which I updated pretty much daily for the next five months. Very labour intensive but worth every hour of the effort.
Tickets went on sale in May, and sold steadily until August when a feature article teed up with the Belfast Telegraph markedly quickened the pace.
And so to September and the ‘product’ in the form of the dinner itself. 180 people arrived to dine, reminisce and enjoy each other’s company. The wine was kindly sponsored but, if you wanted to part with your cash, there was an auction and grand raffle – crammed with top-drawer prizes - to assist you. One of the most remarkable and rewarding nights I’ve been involved in.
That was ‘product one.’ ‘Product two’ was the money raised, all £13,846 of it – split down the middle and handed over to the two chosen causes earlier this week.
Yes, I do like a good ‘project.’ Wearing my newly acquired VANBAR associates hat, I now eagerly await the arrival of the next one.