Where are they now?: Peter McKenna
May 25, 2023 10:30 am Des Berry
THEN – Peter played 41 times for Leinster from 1997 to 2003.
NOW – He practices law at his firm McKenna Durcan, living in Blackrock with his wife Gillian and three sons Matthew (10), Ollie (7) and Andrew (3).
“Why not? Why not you?”
It was a mantra of his father Arthur that always drove, and never left, Peter McKenna.
“If you have an interest in something, I suppose why not tug on that string and see what can happen? That is what I have tried to do, when I have felt brave enough!” he says.
“My dad always had this thing of ‘why not? why not you?”
Peter stretched out his education from CBC Monkstown to study Law in UCD, adding on a post-graduate higher diploma in Business and an MBS in Management Information systems.
He branched out into co-commentating on rugby for Setanta Sports, even writing a book ‘Rugby Explained’ to break down a complicated game, and was involved in founding the Irish Rugby Union Players Association (IRUPA), now known as Rugby Players Ireland (RPI).
It is 20 years since Peter last laced his boots for Leinster. Time does fly.
“I know you look back wearing rose-tinted glasses, but, it truly was a wonderful time and experience,” he says.
“I was in the prime of my life and health, and I got to play a really good standard of rugby with some exceptional players and teammates.
“Looking back now, from the comfort and confines of my desk, it truly was a gift in many ways. Back then, a typical day might involve lifting weights in the morning, followed by a coffee and a chat with your mates, and an afternoon spent playing international standard touch rugby as a warm-up to your training session with the likes of O’Driscoll, Horgan, Hickie, D’Arcy, Dempsey and so on. Sometimes we were even sent home for a two-hour snooze in the afternoon!” he smiles.
Peter’s Leinster career began in 1996 when he played for one season, as the provincial game was turning from amateur to professional.
“In 1997, I turned down the offer of a contract in favour of studying for my Masters. At the time, nobody really knew what a professional rugby life at the provincial level would entail.”
Back then, for Peter, his studies and rugby were in a constant battle for his attention. Ultimately, he signed a one-year, part-time contract with Mike Ruddock in 1999.
“I had started my traineeship as a solicitor in 1998 with Donal Spring & Company. My boss was Donal Spring, the ex-Ireland number eight. He was great. He fully supported my decision to play rugby and put my legal career temporarily on hold.”
“I went part-time for a year to test the waters and to see if it was for me. Actually, I think I am the very last person on a part-time contract to have played for Ireland.
“That started my four years as a professional where I was able to continue with my studies at Blackhall Place in the background. It was a nice balance.
“I put those recently learned legal skills to use in helping to set up IRUPA (now RPI) along with fellow players Liam Toland, Mike Mullins, Justin Fitzpatrick and Dan McFarland.
“It was such an interesting time. We had only formed in 2001 when, in late 2002, the IRFU proposed to disband Connacht.
“This galvanised us as a group and the players came together to challenge the proposal, along with the many thousands who marched on Lansdowne Road.”
In fairness to the IRFU, they changed their position, got behind Connacht and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 2003, Peter was offered another contract with Leinster. It just didn’t feel right. Leinster had lost to Perpignan in the Heineken Cup semi-final. Coaches Matt Williams and Willie Anderson were heading to Scotland. Other friends in the squad were moving on too.
“I was 29 and I knew I was going to have to restart my traineeship which would continue for two more years,” he shares.
“I knew that’s what I had to do. I felt that I should do that sooner rather than later.”
It was only when he stepped away from the game that he realised what an exceptional environment it was in which to earn a living.
“In the normal workplace, it can be a different environment. I love the law and I continue my interest in technology as chairperson of the technology committee of the Law Society. I like what I do. But, it is not the same.”
“In the professional rugby environment, everyone is pulling in the same direction. You all want the same outcome. You are all there with the same passion and for the same reasons. And Leinster created an environment to allow you to thrive if you were willing to work hard.”
Peter saw many men come and go at Leinster and, in his time, he learned one immutable truth.
“Hard work trumps talent, pretty much all the time. Hard work and talent trumps everything else,” he says.
“In 2000, I tore ligaments in my ankle playing for St Mary’s RFC two weeks before I was due to play for Ireland A. My main concern that night was to get on the crutches to get back to make last orders in the bar at St Mary’s, which I did, by the way, but I was out for five to six weeks.
“Fast-forward a year or so, Girvan (Dempsey) suffered a similar injury and I saw it as my chance to try and play ahead of him for an extended period of time. But he was only out for three weeks.
“I couldn’t figure it out. How did he get back so soon? He later told me how for the first few days after his injury, he would get up in the middle of the night and ice his ankle every four hours to get the swelling down.
“It highlighted for me that I was still in amateur mode, whilst Girvan had converted fully to professionalism.”
“The lessons I learned from watching the top calibre players we had at the time were the benefits of focus, certainly the power of discipline and the value of hard work.”
When Peter retired, he stayed at the heart of the game by co-commentating, writing the book, and playing with Old Belvedere RFC in the All-Ireland League, but, not unexpectedly, he found himself acutely drawn to where the law and rugby crossed paths.
“I have always believed passionately about player welfare issues, with a deep desire to help make Ireland the best place in the world to play rugby.
“I felt that if the right contract environment existed for players, it would help play some small part in keeping our best talent here and attracting talent in.
“One of my proudest achievements as a legal advisor to RPI was being involved in drafting the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the IRFU, RPI and the Players in 2019.
“It was progressive, pioneering and the first such agreement in northern hemisphere Rugby. It’s something Irish rugby should be very proud of.”
Peter retired from professional rugby in June 2003 but there was an unexpected swansong when Leinster coach Gary Ella came calling to help fill a hole in the Leinster squad left by the departure of Ireland’s internationals to the World Cup in October 2003.
“I went back in for four games to help them out. I can’t tell you how lovely that was. Only then did I realise how much I missed it. And still do” he adds wistfully.