Community officers strive to make sure the numbers game adds up
The Community Rugby department at Munster Rugby is made up of five Community Rugby Officers with each one responsible for a group of clubs, schools and colleges within an allocated geographic region.
It also includes a women's development officer, girls participation officer, Limerick regeneration officer and 12 part-time club community rugby officers working in schools in conjunction with their respective clubs.
"Our primary role is to increase participation across all areas of rugby throughout Munster," explains community rugby manager Damon Urlich.
"We're responsible for growing the game in identified clubs, schools and colleges and this applies to both the male and female disciplines of the game as well as different formats.
"As well as the on-pitch side of our role, we provide volunteers with training and best practice policies for child welfare, first aid and concussion awareness.
"There is also assistance for clubs looking to source funding for capital development and we promote referee development and participation.
"One of the most important aspects of a community rugby officer's role is establishing good working relationships with the key stakeholders in clubs and schools.
"By developing these relationships we can provide a knowledge base to assist volunteers with issues and queries as they arise
"This is also important for new people coming into the game as we can upskill them and give them confidence to develop as coaches, administrators or referees etc.
"A key participation programme we have implemented this season is the Emerging Schools initiative.
"Our community officers have gone out and targeted non-traditional rugby secondary schools at U-15 level.
"The initiative involves running a series of four rounds of blitz days across seven different regional conferences throughout the province."
"We currently have more than 60 schools engaged in the initiative which is a fantastic achievement and a real tribute to the work of the staff and volunteers alike.
"The programme will culminate in finals days in Thomond Park and Irish Independent Park in April which we are really looking forward to."
As Munster continues to focus on a long-term player development programme Urlich says one of the key areas for its success is the link between local clubs and schools and acknowledges the importance of sports partnerships and their ongoing support.
"If we're going into schools there has to be an end-game - we want to create a continuous pathway whereby children can easily move from experiencing rugby in their school into a local club and then ideally continuing on into adult rugby so they have a lifelong experience in the game.
"We're involved with sports partnerships and other government and community organisations across the six counties who have been very supportive over the years."
While mini rugby numbers continue to grow within the province, one of the challenges for Munster Rugby is addressing the drop-off that occurs in participation in all sports in Ireland when children move from primary to secondary education and again from secondary into third level education or the workforce.
"A real challenge for us is looking at the transition from primary school into secondary school and again when teenagers are exiting secondary school.
"We tend to focus on 5th and 6th class in primary schools in order to hook children into rugby and they can then move on into secondary schools where we cater for them with the likes of our Emerging Schools Initiative.
"A constant theme running through everything we do at this level is keeping our activities fun and enjoyable to ensure children have the best possible rugby experience."
With women's rugby ever increasing throughout the country, Urlich says plans have been put in place to develop the game starting from girls participating at mini level.
"We are continuously promoting boys and girls rugby", he says. "Another programme we are currently piloting is the development of girls' mini rugby sections in clubs. In the past they've always been integrated with the boys up to the age of 12; we're now looking to establish sections whereby all girls are competing together.
"We have set ourselves a target of achieving this in 15 clubs this season and we are roughly two-thirds of the way there which is very positive.
Every year hundreds of children across the province welcome the annual Munster Rugby Summer Camps and its ongoing success has been attributed to the knowledge and professionalism of Munster's community rugby officers.
From June to August over 1,200 boys and girls enjoy a week of rugby in a fun environment at their local club.
"It's very rewarding", says Urlich. "Kids that you first spotted on summer camps aged 7 or 8 are now running around in age grade rugby in their club colours and some have worked their way through to development squads and representative team, which is very satisfying."
"At the end of the day we want to see children enjoying themselves in whatever form of rugby they're playing and having provided them with the opportunity to continue their rugby experience through to their adult life".