Rugby steps out of the shadows of GAA in rural Ireland
Published 26/09/2015 | 02:30
The oval ball was once a foreign object to many children across the land, as the game of rugby lurked in the shadows of GAA and soccer in rural communities.
The goal posts were described as "odd things" and the game itself was believed to have been just played "in the fancy schools". But now it has stepped out of the shadows to become the most popular winter sport in Ireland.
Philip Lawlor, the domestic rugby manager with Leinster, oversees "all rugby outside the professional game". And, according to the man himself, there are now as many as 73 clubs across the 12-county province.
"There would be a rugby club in every major town in Leinster," he explains.
While many of the clubs have been in existence for decades, some are relatively new and have been established as hundreds have started to play the game in the last five to seven years.
"There is definitely a lot more rugby being played. If you look at the clubs and the number of teams in clubs...We have had an increase in the number of players who want to play in the club game. We have had a major influx of more coaches and volunteers in clubs to meet that demand."
While rugby is yet to become the most dominant sport in some communities, it is the most popular winter game, according to some.
The influx of players to the sport in Leinster in recent years is down to a number of factors, according to Mr Lawlor.
"One is a programme we have had in Leinster for the last 15 or 16 years, the Youth Development Programme. We have Club Community Rugby Officers (CCROs). They go in to local schools and they introduce rugby and then they look to get them to play youth rugby in the local club."
People in rural areas often associate the game with fee-paying schools, which have produced many of Ireland's rugby legends, such as Brian O'Driscoll, a former pupil at Blackrock College. But things are changing, according to Mr Lawlor.
"We have what we would classify as 22 rugby playing schools, which would have rugby from first year to sixth year and cater for rugby at all ages and stages.
"We now have rugby being played in about 130 to 140 schools that are registered with the branch."
The development route has produced some of Ireland's biggest stars in recent years, including Carlow's Sean O'Brien.
The 'Tullow Tank' played club rugby with his local team, Tullow RFC, and broke through the Leinster ranks after travelling down the youth development route.
His home club has also benefited from his success, as the number of children playing in the minis and youths game has doubled in recent years. They now have 550 members, according to Tullow Rugby Club's president Tom Nolan.
"It's all about development and trying to bring through our own players to keep it home grown. We would attribute a lot of that success to Sean, it brought in more people."