Wednesday 11 December 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'IRFU must tackle the talent drain'

'The IRFU delivered a workshop last week on what clubs can do to sustain the game.' Stock image
'The IRFU delivered a workshop last week on what clubs can do to sustain the game.' Stock image
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The lads and lassies over at the ESRI never fail to deliver something interesting when they hit the 'send' button. Last week they lobbed over 'Rugby: A Statistical Analysis of Participation'. With the rugby constituency in introspective mode following yet another failed World Cup campaign, the Economic and Social Research Institute's timing was spot on.

When we sat down with Joe Schmidt recently, he offered the following: part of the reason his side were buckled so badly by the All Blacks was because they grew up with rugby balls in their hands. Just as in hurling strongholds in Ireland, kids pick up a stick every time they walk out the door in the same way they grab a jacket; in NZ everyone has a rugby ball. So for the barefoot Schmidt, playing full-contact rugby aged five was how he started. In those circumstances, skill development is virtually unavoidable.

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On top of that we layer in the numbers game. This is not as lopsided as you might think: New Zealand has 151,000 registered players against Ireland's 102,000. And to emphasise that we may have enough to be going on with, the ESRI have concluded that the point of the exercise should not be to make dawn raids in GAA territory, dragging kids from their beds and indoctrinating them in the ways of the oval world. Rather it is to fight to hang on to what you have.

"The strong suggestion is that individuals are likely to drop out from rugby when they transition from primary to second-level school and, more so, when they leave second-level school," the report says. "Participation halves at the first of these transition points and more than halves at the second."

True, this is not hard news, and indeed the ESRI started ringing this bell a few years ago when commissioned by the IRFU, but it's worth making the noise again about an issue that is not unique to rugby. So how is rugby reacting?

The IRFU delivered a workshop last week on what clubs can do to sustain the game. There is a realisation that the model of presenting the sport and all its complexities needs to smarten up. So maybe ask folks what they want from the game?

"We challenged our collective approach to engaging with these young players and asked are we connecting to them, why they play the game, and are we providing an environment that delivers what they want from it," says Colin McEntee, director of rugby development at the IRFU.

"If we can get a better understanding of their 'why' then we can make good decisions on how we deliver a rugby experience that keeps them engaged and connected to their clubs, and more effectively supports their engagement with rugby as they face the pressures of transitioning from primary to secondary or from secondary to adulthood."

By all accounts the workshop was well attended and delivered lots of useful stuff for clubs to take away. Keeping the doors open in clubland is a battle. Ironically, the obligation to strengthen the position of women in the game offers a real opportunity for clubs to broaden their base.

So does the prospect of straying out of the social class in which rugby is fixed.

Surely it's more productive to remove some of the obstacles put in the way of teenagers who are actually playing. We have lost count of the number of folks put off by the restrictive practice that exists at youth level where kids, who are involved with schools cup teams in a bunch of designated schools, are precluded from playing for their clubs.

The mystery is two-fold: how it hasn't been legally challenged; and how IRFU performance director David Nucifora hasn't waded in on something that restricts the growth of the game. So we continue with the chronology of clubs looking after kids from under-sevens until the first flashpoint: secondary school. And then being, in some cases, wiped out of the frame.

That shift from primary to secondary school on its own can be enough to remove kids from the sport. Compounding that by legislating for separating young players from their clubs if they have a relationship with their school at junior or senior cup is as mad as it is bad.

With participation numbers way up for rugby among kids in their later years in primary school, it only highlights the hurdle waiting for them depending on where they go for second level. Unlike the GAA, which has the club at its epicentre, in rugby the school is the highest altar, and sacrifices being made here fly in the face of what the IRFU is now trying to do to upskill the clubs.

Having learned lots about demographic changes that demand a response from rugby if it wants to keep up, it's hard to understand how the IRFU doesn't have the political will to get its own house in order.

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