“The rugby experience actually grows with the child” - Scott Walker, IRFU’s Director of Rugby Development
The future of rugby in this country depends on participation at all levels.
Whether for weekend warriors in their forties, enthusiastic tyros in their teens, or players of the very youngest ages, for boys and girls, rugby is a game that gives so much to those who play it.
Scott Walker is the IRFU’s Director of Rugby Development who is charged with providing Irish people with the opportunity to play the game across all levels and provinces. The Aviva Mini Rugby programme is a fundamental part of the IRFU’s strategy to capture the interest of the youngest players and instil a lifelong involvement with rugby.
We caught up with Scott to find out what the IRFU are doing to ensure the game of rugby continues to thrive in Ireland, and crucially, what the benefits are for young people who play the game.
Can you explain for us your function within the IRFU?
“My role as director of rugby development is really to ensure that there is ample opportunity and access for people to play the game of rugby regardless of age or their gender. That’s created by our club and schools network, but also through other programmes that we run which give people the chance to sample the game and hopefully from that they get a lifelong involvement in rugby.
“From my perspective, it involves all the resourcing and staffing, how we support volunteers within the club and school game across the whole four provinces.”
Is there a particular philosophy or ethos that pervades the IRFU development policy?
“Everything is volunteer-centric in how we operate. We’re highly reliant on the volunteers in regard to the operation of the clubs as well as all the teachers in the schools. So we have to support all the stakeholders in how they develop the game and our staff are trained how to support those individuals.
“It is a very club and school-centric operation across Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht, and they provide the frontline support, or as I call it ‘the last mile’ for the clubs and schools. We support them in situ working to develop coaches, who work directly with the children on the pitch, working with volunteers off the pitch with regards to supporting club development, also one of the big areas we’re looking at at the moment is the use of technology. We’ve employed staff in each of the four provinces called Club Support Officers, who are there to help support clubs adopt technology into their training. In today’s society and particularly when dealing with youth, you’ve got to be technically savvy.”
Does the game of rugby face competition from the Gaelic Sports in Ireland?
“I’d like to reframe that statement if I may because the rugby philosophy is to encourage youth to play as many sports as possible. Sport is a natural part of any young person’s development and team sports are particularly important. Research from the Economic Social Research Institute, who we work closely with, states that children who participate in team sports, regardless of code, actually have a longer participation lifespan which results in more, healthier adults in the long term.
“For us it’s all about physical literacy even in the mini rugby environment, and this is where Aviva’s Mini Rugby programme is very important to us. It actually teaches physical literacy first and then the rugby skills second. We’ve set up our mini rugby programme to foster a lifelong involvement in the game.”
“We’ve invested heavily into what we call ‘Spirit’. Spirit for us, means supporting the young people in clubs and it’s actually quite simple with regards to young people’s development. It helps them make more right than wrong decisions. Spirit is one of the programmes that we do, working with our sponsors such as Aviva, to instil the values of Irish rugby and those values will help a young person through their development and into their adult lives.
“Aviva Mini rugby instils the values of rugby. It’s all about play, it’s about learning the game, and from that we have no leagues or competitions in mini rugby. It’s about participation and integrity, which are very important to rugby. As we begin to move up the pathway we begin to introduce competition models which allow talent and potential to move forward we’re also creating parallel models that are all about participation and encouraging those who just want to play rugby and have fun.”
The physicality of the game at the highest level can put parents off allowing their children to pursue rugby as a sport. How can you allay those fears?
“In any participation sport there is a risk. Any parent has to weigh up the advantages to the potential risk in any activity. From a rugby perspective, we’ve mitigated that risk for our mini rugby programmes. What people see in a professional game, isn’t what a nine-year-old is exposed to from day one.
“Where mini rugby is very good at teaching physical literacy is that it progresses. So we start off with small sided games with five or six players playing each other. That slowly begins to expand in size as the players develop their physical competencies, to having more players on the pitch, more technical challenges coming into the game.
“There is a progression. The rugby experience actually grows with the child and that’s very important for parents to realise. So that when children come into the rugby environment, they have a very good experience in which they develop physically and technically, but also through Spirit programme we’re also giving them a set of values that Irish rugby which enables them to grow from a personal and lifestyle perspective as well.
There seems to be huge drop off in team sports participation when people reach their teenage years. What can the IRFU do about this?
“There’s a problem across all team sports with regard to drop out and we see it as well in rugby. There is a variety of reasons there with children growing at different rates, some children choosing the sport that they do, and also time limits as well, which might mean they choose another sport over rugby.
“The challenge for rugby is to create those opportunities for people to access the game be it in shorter periods in blocks, or be it a sort of transitional rugby. This is discussed not only at a national level, but also at international level. I’m a member of a global group of unions which include England, New Zealand and Australia, and we meet up every three to four months to discuss the challenges we’re having in the game, because every nation has the same challenges in regards to team sports.
“We’ve just finished an eighteen month project where we did market research to understand the reasons people dropped out of the game across six unions internationally, so quite a large sample pool. We worked with a market research company to understand the reasons people drop out of the game and from that we developed a new game called Xsevens.
“Xsevens is a game designed for those who are looking for a game with less physical contact, yet has the contents of rugby. Effectively it’s a seven-a-side half pitch game with a sweeper, so it has an element of 15s. We’ve been trailing this game in Ireland and it’s about to go forward for formal ramification. For us it’s a way of attracting those players who don’t necessarily want to progress up the performance pathway. It’s about active participation, it has certain interpretations of the tackle and it’s been really successful in retaining youth players in the game, it’s been successful in retaining adult players too. We’ve got players up to the age of forty playing this game.”
How can the IRFU build on the recent successes of the women’s team and the hosting of the 2017 World Cup?
“Rugby and especially the girls’ game is about creating an opportunity for all kinds of players to get involved. We work with the girls’ game to create these participation opportunities. For example during the women’s World Cup in Ireland we ran a very large impact programme linked to the trophy tour. We ran a host of rugby camps up and down the country where we saw a large number of girls who had never played the game actually come and start playing. We also rolled that out to third level as well and recently we had one institution last week where we had 90 girls who had never played the game wanting to try it. Now the challenge for us to create an opportunity for them to play, in which they can progress.
“The advantage of the women’s game in Ireland is that we have such great role models playing at national level. We’re an integrated sport, it’s not about girls’ rugby or boys’ rugby but rather about allowing those who want to play to play I regardless of gender.”
Do you participate yourself in the Aviva Mini Rugby Festivals?
I love going to the Aviva Mini Rugby programmes and watching the young players enjoy themselves in what is a very good developmental programme. In Armagh the week before last it was great. We’re an all-Ireland sport we work across all cultures and all of society. A large part of that is the parents and the coaches who come along and they enjoy it just as much as the kids do. We create that environment, which is safe but also has the development factor to it.
For Girls & Boys aged 7-12 the programme includes initiatives aimed at attracting new players to the game, fostering the enjoyment of those already playing and promoting diversity and social skills. Visit www.aviva.ie/minirugby