12 Dec, 14:42
Prop Cian Healy is expected to miss the start of the 2014 RBS 6 Nations after undergoing surgery on his injured ankle on Wednesday.
It9s quite simply about broadening the playing base and recognising that an aspiration to ensure rugby union will be in rude good health over the next few generations, must be complemented by a practical development of young players.
In this respect the Frosties Youth Development Officers (YDO) programme, has been crucial in the IRFU9s policy of spreading the rugby gospel. It's not about CBC Cork, Blackrock College, Garbally or Methodist College Belfast, schools with proud traditions and histories of nurturing future internationals at all levels, rather it's about permeating areas of the country where the sport didn't previously exist.
To do this the IRFU, (in addition to the generous sponsorship it receives from companies like Coca Cola, Kellogg's and the VHI at the grassroots end of the game) has been hugely facilitated by financial backing from the Irish Sports Council. If that assistance wasn't forthcoming then broadening the base would be no more than a pipe dream. John Treacy9s organisation gives the Union the wherewithal to get more children involved in the sport.
There are now 87 Frosties YDOs in the country, ministering to primary and secondary schools in introducing the sport, facilitating its development and providing a strong link between school and club. The latter is vital in ensuring that the sport takes root in an area.
There are now 470 schools taking part in the Coca Cola TAG rugby programme, the regime which the union consider appropriate for young players taking up the game before moving on to Leprechaun rugby. Those numbers equate to about 30,000-35,000 children now involved at that level. All the accoutrements for playing Coca Cola TAG, balls, tags, manual videos etc are provided for any would be participants. There are a number of instructional days for teachers and local, regional and National blitzes for the kids.
There is an emphasis on establishing a link between any school and a given club within an eight to 10 mile radius. Schools provide the introduction but the concept is that the young players will adopt a club for life. Building that bond is very important.
In the modern cultural climate with the growing rate of obesity among youngsters, the IRFU is conscious of promoting the benefits of sport and so created the VHI Fit for Fun programme, a process aimed at improving motive skills and promoting a healthy lifestyle through which rugby is subtly insinuated.
The IRFU's Director of Rugby Eddie Wigglesworth explained: "There has been a 10-15 per cent increase in playing levels. This year we may take the Coca Cola TAG rugby into more than 500 schools and it is at that stage that our resource capability will be stretched extremely thin".
Therein lies the rub. For this programme to continue the Irish Sports Council funding is pivotal. Rather than the sweeping generalisations and statistical analysis that can overwhelm the issues, it is important to seek a more concrete appraisal of the progress.
Ultan O'Callaghan (yes, he's Donncha's brother) is the IRFU's Provincial Development manager in Munster, heading up a team that includes Shannon's John Lacey, former international flanker David Corkery and Catherine Carroll. This quartet along with the 16 Frosties YDOs are charged with developing the game in the province.
In the last four years Coca Cola TAG rugby has shown an increase from 197 to 375 schools and in that period playing numbers in mini-rugby and youths rugby has risen to about 19,000; or more than doubled. In substantiating these statistics it's important to examine a practical example.
Kerry is a renowned stronghold of Gaelic football and even though the kingdom has provided rugby internationals of the calibre of Mick Galwey, Moss Keane and the late Mick Doyle it would hardly be considered a rugby heartland. But that's changing thanks to the positive input of the Frosties YDOs and the committed interest of a huge number of volunteers.
There are now seven junior rugby clubs in Kerry, up from five and there are 35 national schools involved in Coca Cola TAG rugby. O'Callaghan is quick to highlight the role of the volunteers. "Without those people, men and women who give up their time and put in so much effort, all that we try and achieve would fall short. They deserve huge credit for the expansion of the game". Last year the IRFU had its first ever summer rugby camp in Kerry and 100 kids participated watched by Mick Galwey. Cashel is another non traditional hinterland that is becoming a rugby enclave, the club providing Denis and John Fogarty, Brendan O'Connor and the newly capped Denis Leamy to the professional ranks.
There are now 806 coaches (up from 216 in 2001) in the province. The other provinces are also making significant strides. In Connacht participation levels are on the increase with two new rugby youth clubs coming into being since the start of the season, one in Oughterard and the other in Moat. "Since the introduction of the Frosties YDO scheme in the province participating school numbers have risen from 32 schools in the first year to 113 currently. It has been a phenomenal success", says Connacht PDM Tom Conneely.
In Leinster there are 7,600 children involved in Coca Cola Tag rugby at national school level each week.
"Prior to the introduction of the Frosties YDO scheme,qualifying league clubs usually had an Under-8, Under-10, Under-12 and Under-14 teams, now with the Frosties YDO in-situ the demand has grown to the point where there are now often two teams in each of the those age grade levels", says Phil Lawlor, Leinster Provincial Development Manager.
There are 88 secondary schools in Leinster playing rugby and this number too is growing.
Ulster PDM Alistair Brown concurs and expresses, "satisfaction in Ulster at this participation level but there's more we would like to do".
The only concern for the IRFU is that as the base broadens so too the financial implications. The Sports Council has been particularly generous in this respect and the union is hoping that the national body will continue to support the development of the game, particularly at underage level.