Rugby's farmer army - the players from farming backgrounds spreading the oval ball gospel in new territory

Sean O'Brien, pictured at his farm in Tullow
Sean O'Brien, pictured at his farm in Tullow

Sam Wheeler

When John Hayes was in his pomp, having a farmer in the Ireland rugby team was "a bit of a novelty, especially for the city boys". And when word got out about the legendary Munster prop's passion for farm machinery, "the slagging started".

"We could be travelling on a bus somewhere and if there was a tractor in a field, they'd be bringing it to my attention," Hayes writes in his autobiography, 'The Bull - My Story'. "Look Hayes, a big blue one! Can you see it! Jaysus that's a fine looking tractor in fairness. And I'd be supposed to get all excited."

Things have changed, though. These days, anyone in the Ireland set-up taking the mickey out of farmers could find that the joke quickly backfires, because there are seven men from an agricultural background in Joe Schmidt's 38-man Six Nations squad: Sean O'Brien, Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best, Rob Kearney, CJ Stander, Will Addison and John Ryan all grew up on farms.

The first five named are likely starters when fully fit, which means that a third of the first-choice Ireland XV are farmers. Not such a novelty any more.

Clearly, there is something about people with farming backgrounds that makes them suited to this physical sport, where size and strength are so important.

The Farming 7

  • Sean O'Brien
  • Tadhg Furlong
  • Rory Best
  • Rob Kearney
  • CJ Stander
  • Will Addison
  • John Ryan

Professor Niall Moyna, head of DCU's School of Health and Human Performance - who was on the backroom team for Dublin's breakthrough All-Ireland triumph in 2011, and also managed the DCU football team for 15 years - reckons there are three elements.

"People from a farming background tend to have that work ethic, which is hugely important if you want to play sport at the highest level," says the Monaghan man, who was raised on a farm himself. "You're brought up with early starts and late nights, and it's pedal to the metal when it has to be.

Farm strength

"Then all that demanding work on the farm from a young age is developing muscle mass, and strength is such a big component of rugby. People talk about farm strength compared to gym strength. On a farm, if you're baling hay and throwing it up on a trailer or shovelling out a silage pit or whatever, it's all a closer replica of what you would be doing on a rugby pitch - throwing other players out of the way - than anything you can do in a gym.

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"We call it specificity of training, where you're trying to isolate the muscles you need in the sport you play, and it's very hard to replicate.

"Thirdly, on a farm, you're given a leadership role at a young age, given duties to carry out. You are able to plan and organise yourself. Problem-solving is hugely important in rugby - it's like a game of chess, working out the opposition - and people from farming backgrounds are often able to problem-solve without even realising they are doing it."

Tullow RFC team manager Tom Nolan. Photo: Roger Jones
Tullow RFC team manager Tom Nolan. Photo: Roger Jones

Anecdotal evidence from some of Ireland's more rural rugby clubs backs this up.

"They probably would be bigger, and they'd probably be hardier," says Tom Nolan, team manager and former president of Tullow RFC, of the farming contingent at his club, who he estimates make up 75pc of the playing membership.

"We'd have lads that have come up the tough way; there is a sort of natural toughness in them… when you're running up a hill in Kiltegan after sheep, things like that, it will make you hardy. There is that work ethic. That's something that you can't find in a gym.

"You can build yourself up to a certain level in the gym -you can be physically strong, but the mentality of getting things done, that you're going to see something out - that's big in the farming community. The idea that you'll stay the race. You can't quit in farming. You can't hide, It has to be done. You see that with Tadhg Furlong, you see that with Sean O'Brien. Guys that do the extra yard. It's a mental attitude that they're going to go forward."

Maurice Quirke, PRO of Furlong's club, New Ross RFC - which he says draws the majority of its playing membership from the "rural hinterland" around the small Wexford market town - agrees, saying: "Lads from a farming background tend to be that bit stronger, they are used to a bit of hard work, maybe more so than lads from a slightly more refined background. They have grown up comfortable in the mud, they are more comfortable dishing out a bit of physical punishment - and receiving it."

If the farming community tends to have a natural aptitude for rugby, why weren't the Ireland teams of the past full of farmers? Why was Hayes a "novelty" whereas farmers now dominate the national team? What has changed?

Firstly, more people from rural communities are playing rugby.

The oval ball game on the island of Ireland was traditionally the preserve of three demographics: the affluent professional classes based around South Dublin, who have been to the 'right' fee-paying schools; Limerick and to a lesser extent Cork; and the middle-class Unionist community in the North.

Now, rugby has taken steps to divest itself of its elitist image, with interest outside the old strongholds bolstered by the success of the provincial and national sides; new clubs have sprung up, and the established clubs are fielding more teams, particularly at underage and ladies' level.

John Hayes is loving life on his farm, delighted that he never has to wear a tracksuit
John Hayes is loving life on his farm, delighted that he never has to wear a tracksuit

Maurice Quirke traces the transformation back nearly 50 years to the removal of the GAA's 'ban' on its members playing 'foreign games' in 1971. The GAA remains the dominant sporting force in rural Ireland, but there is now more of a sharing of the playing resources. Most of the Ireland squad grew up playing Gaelic games before focusing on rugby.

"The GAA is still the first draw," says Mr Quirke. "We have a lot of people who play both. There has been the removal of that stigma. The door has been opened for people who are perhaps a bit larger and don't fit the mould for GAA players these days. And rugby clubs just tend to be very welcoming places, where everyone can fit in."

Mr Nolan says there is a practical reason for rugby's popularity among the farming community.

"Farming can be seasonal," he points out. "And if people are busier in the summer, it might suit them to play a winter sport. So GAA suits them less."

Sometimes, though, farming can be a barrier, he warns.

"I remember us getting promoted to (Leinster League) Division 1A, and it not working out for us for the simple reason that the farmers said they had to work Saturdays… we weren't too long up in Division 1A till we found ourselves back in 1B, which suits us, playing on a Sunday," he says.

Dave and Rob Kearney
Dave and Rob Kearney

Generally, then, more players from rural communities are playing rugby, and now the talented ones are more likely to be spotted by the elite level of the game.

Of the seven farmers in the Ireland squad, O'Brien and Furlong best reflect the changes. Team captain Best is from the North and went to a rugby school; Kearney was brought up on the Cooley peninsula but boarded at Clongowes Wood; Ryan went to Christian Brothers College Cork; Stander (Western Cape, South Africa) and Addison (Cumbria in England) were raised abroad.

Furlong and O'Brien don't fall into any of those categories. Both are sons of men who played rugby (at a relatively low level) but they didn't attend rugby schools; and a generation ago, their talent might not have been spotted.

"There's a pathway Leinster Rugby have put in place - sub-academy, into the academy," says Mr Nolan, who credits the various rugby development officers on the ground. "It's not a closed door any more; I'd imagine people thought it was before.

"And I think us outside the pale, we've upped our game.

"Yes, we are at a disadvantage from the off, but where we've changed that is in what Leinster do to coach the people coaching, then the development squads in the areas. That's where your farmer's son gets a look in the door."

Rugby schools

Mr Quirke, though, feels that the players attending rugby schools still have a huge advantage, given the intensive training they get - these teenagers are treated almost like professionals.

"The horizons have been broadened, but I think there's still more broadening that can happen," he says.

"The pitch is still not level. The training they do in the top schools, you can't replicate in a club environment with lads who don't have access to fee-paying schools. You can only imagine what we'd have if we could combine the agricultural strength of the likes of Tadhg with all that training…"

The agricultural community's rugby talents may not be harnessed perfectly, but they are no longer being ignored, and Ireland's 'farmer army' is reaping the rewards.

Farmers in an Ireland shirt - not just a modern phenomenon

The upper echelons of Irish rugby haven’t always been heavily populated by farmers, but there have been a few big names with an agricultural background.

Lions legends Willie John McBride grew up on  farm near Ballymena; he was five when his father died, and he spent so much of his time working on the farm that he didn’t take up rugby until he was 17, although after university he managed a bank in Belfast.

Moss Keane

Moss Keane (pictured) was raised on a farm in Kerry and played Gaelic football to a high standard – he won three Sigerson Cups and a Munster Club title before taking up rugby at UCC; he famously played under a false name during ‘the ban’. He became the third Ireland forward to reach 50 caps, winning a Triple Crown in 1982. He worked for the Department of Agriculture.

John Hayes was rugby’s first big farming hero of the professional era. The 100-cap man won two Heineken Cups with Munster as well as the Grand Slam with Ireland in 2009, plus three other Triple Crowns.

But whatever he achieved on the rugby field, ‘the Bull’ always gave the impression he couldn’t wait to get back to the farm in Cappamore.

Farming’s influence extends to the dugout, too: Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster was raised on a farm in Cumbria.

Indo Farming

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