Two things dominate the walls of the lovely home of Niall and Lisa Woods – artworks and television sets – and each relates to the careers of the couple.
The artworks are all painted by artist Lisa, while the TVs are a huge part of Niall’s work as a sports talent and management agent. As owner and MD of Navy Blue Sports, he has a stable of sports stars – mainly rugby players – and sports commentators, and he has to constantly watch their games and make sure that their careers are going according to plan.
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It’s something of a labour of love for Niall. He loves all sport, but has a passion for rugby, having played for both Leinster and Ireland back in his teens and 20s. He also played professionally for London Irish and Harlequins. And it wasn’t an easy path, so when his clients encounter problems, Niall knows exactly where they’re coming from, and can help them with the rough and the smooth.
The youngest of four – two boys and two girls – rugby was in Niall’s genes. “Dad played for Leinster and subbed for Ireland – he never got a cap, as he never got to play. He was very supportive and went to everything. My brother Johnny played rugby too, and the girls played hockey, so Dad was always on the go,” Niall notes affectionately.
Niall played from the age of seven, and few would have predicted a successful career, as he was on the small side for a rugby player – but then he grew. “I was a late developer,” he says. “I wasn’t physically big enough until my last year in secondary school. I suddenly grew six or seven inches.”
Suddenly he became a contender, and got to play for Ireland when he was 22 years old. He got eight caps in total – no mean achievement.
Niall’s dad was an accountant and Niall then found himself in his dad’s office, doing the exams for chartered accountancy, but an opportunity to go and play professionally was too tempting to dismiss in favour of finishing his accountancy. “I was hesitating – ‘Should I stay or should I go?’,” Niall recalls. “But I wanted a change, and one of the tax partners said to me, ‘You can always be a chartered accountant, but you can’t always be a rugby player’.”
That decided Niall, and he headed off to London, where he played for four years with London Irish, and a further year with Harlequins.
Unfortunately, a cruciate ligament injury at the age of 30 put paid to his rugby career; he was told by the medical experts that if he continued to play, he would have a limp for the rest of his life. Quite apart from the fact that he now had no means of earning a living, he was shattered. “Once you’re injured for a set period of time, the club can terminate your contract, and they did. It was hard. I was like, ‘How am I going to pay my mortgage, my car loan?’ I missed the playing and the team,” Niall notes. “It was not like nowadays where men are more likely to talk about it; you kept it in.”
Niall admits that even though he did get a job soon after – a job which, in a way, led to his current career – it took him several years to get over the devastation he felt about not being able to play any more. “I couldn’t watch a rugby game,” he says. “I felt so vicious. I went to a few games, but I was so bitter and twisted, I stopped going to games.”
One thing that helped him get over his anger was the opportunity to do a bit of rugby punditry for the BBC and Sky, which he enjoyed enormously. “It was live TV, so a lot of adrenaline. I couldn’t go to bed, I was so wired; it’s similar to playing,” Niall says. “I enjoyed it, but I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew I wasn’t a big name, and that when someone retired with 80 caps, he’d get the gig.”
But at least Niall is grateful that it helped him through a bad patch. “It was three years before I could go to a match and enjoy it. That was a match in 2004 when Ireland beat England for the first time in 10 years; it was the first game [at which] I didn’t feel bitter,” he says. “I know guys who’ve been retired eight, nine years, and they’re not fully adjusted. When they’re playing, they’re in it, they take the adrenaline for granted, but when it’s over, they can’t do without it.”
While the psychological side of life was a struggle for a time, workwise, Niall flourished. Soon after his injury, he was offered a job with the Rugby Players’ Association in Britain, and he stayed there for 18 months. In 2003, he came home and started the Rugby Union Players’ Association in Ireland, which he ran for eight years – this involved looking after all the professional players in Ireland, their terms of employment, and any contractual issues.
He stayed eight years with the Players’ Association, before deciding to go out on his own and start Navy Blue Sports Management in 2011. “I had zero clients on day one,” Niall recalls. “My first client was [Irish international rugby player] Jordi Murphy; it grew from there.”
He now has some 30 rugby players on his books, including big names Garry Ringrose and Andrew Conway; while his numbers have swollen to include sports commentators Darragh Moloney and Richie Sadlier, as well as sportspeople from all the other disciplines, including many women, among them rugby referee Joy Neville.
Niall’s main job is negotiating contracts, but he also deals with sponsorship, speaking engagements, issues around sports injuries, and even tax issues, so his years in accountancy have not been wasted. In fact, he is uniquely placed to manage sportspeople, having experienced all the slings and arrows a career in sports can throw at you. “My USP is there’s no one else in the world of rugby, who was an international player, ran a players’ association and became an agent,” Niall says, adding, “And I pride myself on being always on. A player can be bored at night and text me and I’ll answer, and it’s never one text.”
“I’ll tolerate it, except at the dinner table,” Lisa notes with a laugh.
Niall is adamant that he could not have started the agency without the support of Lisa, who was willing in the early days to go without all the usual trappings of a middle-class suburban life.
The couple have been together since 2005, when they met on a blind date. “Niall and I had both been in long-term relationships which had ended, and my cousin, Janet, and Niall’s sister, Louise, who were friends, hatched a plan,” Lisa says with a laugh, adding that the date took place in The Hungry Monk in Greystones, one Sunday afternoon. “As I bit into a giant burger, Lisa told me she was a vegetarian,” Niall remembers, adding with a laugh, “I had been on a wild weekend, I was a bit hungover. I wasn’t fresh.”
Nonetheless, each was smitten with the other, and soon they were inseparable. They were engaged within four months, and married within the year.
Lisa, who is from Cork, originally studied marketing but didn’t love it, and instead travelled the world as cabin crew for Aer Lingus and CityJet, before opting to take a job in display with Dunnes Stores. She stayed nearly two years with Dunnes, and they wanted her to join their buying team, but she knew that she and Niall wanted to start a family, and all the travel involved would make that difficult.
Instead, she started her own display company. Then, when the couple’s kids – Oliver (now 11), Archie (now nine) and Marnie (now six) came along, Lisa changed tack completely. “I found myself painting when I wasn’t taken up with the kids. I had done art at school, and I was always painting something,” she says. “Then, when we moved here, I couldn’t afford art for the walls, so I painted my own, and I kept doing it. It evolved from a hobby to a business, and I do a lot of comissions.”
By that stage, the couple had just moved into their current home in Rathmichael, in south Co Dublin. Prior to that, they had lived in Niall’s former family home in Stillorgan, which they bought in 2010; his parents had downsized to a smaller house next door. They loved living there, but they realised it was too big and in need of too much work, so after some years, they made the decision to sell. “We did bits and pieces, but it was never enough. We knew a big job was needed and we couldn’t afford it. It was a reality check,” says Lisa.
Their initial plan was to find a similar smaller house, but then they saw the new-build, in a leafy enclave of 10 houses surrounded by trees, in Rathmichael, and realised it was perfect for their family, with its five bedrooms, big open-plan kitchen/ dining room, as well an elegant living room and decent-sized playroom.
There’s also a studio for Lisa, who finds inspiration in the Rathmichael sunrises and sunsets – she works mainly to commission, and spends mornings at her easel here while the kids are at school.
They thought they would find it a bit far out, but its proximity to the M50 and the Luas make it only minutes from schools, and less than an hour from the city centre.
Though the house is brand new, Lisa has given it lots of personality with her talent for picking interesting colour schemes; her creativity; her own paintings; and her penchant for upcycling vintage finds, including one they are particularly thrilled with. “Niall was back visiting his folks one day in Stillorgan and saw the fireplace from our – and their – previous house in a skip. The new owners were throwing it out, so he took it home and painted it,” Lisa says, while Niall adds, “It’s nice to have a memory of our old home as part of our new one,” showing yet again how important it is to have the ability to move on.
For Niall, see navyblue.ie
For Lisa, see theabstractblonde.com
Edited by Mary O’Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
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