Wednesday 16 October 2019

Comment: Rugby is winning hearts of nation's elite athletes

Jacob Stockdale scoring a try against England for the Grand Slam. Photo: PA
Jacob Stockdale scoring a try against England for the Grand Slam. Photo: PA
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Is Irish sport about to have its Rugby Moment? Will the nation's youngsters, inspired by an outstanding team and a memorable triumph, desert soccer, Gaelic football and hurling to embrace the oval ball in hitherto unseen numbers?

Nah, probably not. Irish rugby, which has done a wonderful job of punching above its weight in terms of player numbers in the past, will probably have to continue doing so in the future.

Brian O’Driscoll and the Grand Slam-winning team of 2009. Photo: Sportsfile
Brian O’Driscoll and the Grand Slam-winning team of 2009. Photo: Sportsfile

A look at the IRFU's club rugby map illustrates the enormous gulf which separates rugby from its rivals in terms of mass appeal. Some counties only possess a single club. Those clubs have the isolated look of frontier posts erected in disputed territory by an uncertain empire.

Compare this to the GAA's presence in every parish. Or to the ubiquity of soccer which actually has more players than Gaelic football does. It's impossible to imagine a rugby equivalent of the country's myriad junior soccer leagues.

The gap is far too large to be bridged by the effects of any one victory, no matter how memorable. It would require decades of change for rugby to overhaul Gaelic football or soccer.

Attractive Yet rugby could enjoy, and is already enjoying to a certain extent, a different kind of success vis-a-vis its rivals. Though ill-equipped to win the battle for mass popularity, it's proving increasingly attractive to elite players from Gaelic games in particular.

I've seen this myself at first hand. Two of our outstanding local Gaelic football prospects, one of them pegged as a future Cork senior, have opted for rugby instead.

They're following in the footsteps of fellow West Corkonian Darren Sweetnam who was good enough to play midfield for the county senior hurlers at the age of 19 but jilted them for Munster rugby.

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Rugby's appeal may not be as wide as that of the GAA but it has broadened considerably of late. The starting XV against England on Saturday contained players from nine different counties (11 if you include Counties South Africa and New Zealand).

Compare this to the five different counties (seven if you include Counties England and Scotland) represented by the 14 players Martin O'Neill used in the World Cup play-off against Denmark.

A gifted youngster from a town like Skibbereen probably has a better chance of representing Ireland, at both underage and senior level, in rugby than in soccer.

The latter game is largely dominated by Dublin clubs and further limits opportunity by the extensive underage recruitment of players with merely genealogical connections to this country.

Rugby's net is being cast wider all the time. There will be many more internationals like Tadhg Furlong from backgrounds and schools more commonly associated with the GAA. It seems unlikely the game will ever enjoy the same success in other city working-class communities that it traditionally did in Limerick.

But the country's small towns look fertile territory and it is the very best athletes who will cross over.

The appeal of rugby to an ambitious youngster is obvious. It holds out the promise of a professional career whereas Gaelic games offers the worst of both worlds by marrying professional levels of commitment to amateur levels of remuneration. Rugby also offers the opportunity of testing yourself against international opposition, an irresistible prospect for high achievers driven to excel and to explore the outer limits of their ability.

It's sometimes suggested that rugby's appeal is automatically limited by its status as a middle-class game.

That seems a cheap shot. The middle class, God love them, have to play something. And I've seen GAA diehards who slag off rugby as 'posh' also decry soccer as the game of 'scumbags.' Judging a sport by the social class of its adherents is a mug's game.

There have after all been few fiercer competitors in Irish sporting history than Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara, sons of a doctor and a university lecturer respectively.

What matters is the size of fight in the dog rather than the size of the wallet of the dad of the dog in the fight.

It seems slightly unreasonable to ask Ireland's professional classes to resign en masse from rugby so that the game's general appeal might be increased.

A more obvious obstacle to the spread of rugby is that it's simply not the kind of game kids can easily play in the schoolyard or park. You can improvise an attenuated version, without rucks, scrums, lineouts, etc, but this must seem unsatisfying when it's so easy to play a game of soccer which directly resembles the previous night's Champions League showdown.

Rugby remains a technically complicated sport, which at its highest level requires the kind of intensive coaching the traditionally specialist schools provide.

For this reason such schools will probably continue to provide the majority of players to Irish teams. Yet increasingly they'll be joined by lads whose original childhood dreams were of Croke Park rather than the Aviva Stadium.

The position of rugby in Ireland has always been a somewhat odd one. I remember the Triple Crown campaigns of 1982 and 1985 being just as fervently followed as this year's triumph.

Myself and the people I knew greatly admired Campbell, Duggan, Dean, Ringland et al. Yet we had never played rugby and hardly knew anyone who did. The game existed at a slight remove from mainstream Irish experience.

And while the TV viewing figures for Ireland games are massive and the attendances at European club games rise all the time, rugby's national presence is not as all encompassing as those numbers suggest. It is perhaps Ireland's most major minor sport.

Amid the current euphoria it would be easy to predict that rugby will soon be number one.

But soccer, Gaelic football and hurling will remain the top games for kids. However, rugby may become the game for the top kids.

It's a pretty good consolation prize.

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