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The Friday Interview: Olly Hodges

The Friday Interview: Olly Hodges

In a new installment of ‘The Friday Interview’ series, we talked with Olly Hodges, the IRFU’s Leisure Rugby Manager, about his rugby-playing days, his administration career, his role with the Union and the development of Tag Rugby, which now sees around 8,000 registered players involved in the Union’s Tag activities.

IrishRugby.ie: Firstly Olly, tell me about your own rugby background. How did you start playing the game, what level did you play to and what attracted you to the administrative side of the game?

Olly Hodges: I was always involved in sport back home in Australia. I played a reasonable level of rugby, the equivalent of AIB League standard I guess, but my original start in sports administration would have been in cricket, which is obviously the main summer sport in Australia.

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I played that at a high level in Australia and drifted into sports administration from there. I did a tertiary degree in Sports Science and I majored in Sports Management and then naturally drifted into administration once I finished playing.

I had a few injuries that inhibited me from playing, particularly cricket – at a decent level as well. I suppose by accident I drifted into it and then started working full-time for Cricket New South Wales which would be the biggest provincial cricketing body in Sydney. I worked there for a good while and then that got the ball rolling from there.

IR: Some of our site users might know you more as a referee – how did you get involved in refereeing and is it hard to keep up along with your job as the IRFU’s Leisure Rugby Manager?

OH: Really it was because I couldn’t keep up with playing (that I got into refereeing), with my knee particularly and just the change of direction and being able to take the contact – my body going one way and my feet another – I just didn’t have the stability in my knee to be able to play rugby.

I just thought that I still wanted to do something. I didn’t want to be sitting on a couch and ending up as fat as a fool, so I started to run around and started refereeing. This was in the middle of 2006 and I just started refereeing underage rugby, which is where most guys start, and then I just kept going.

In terms of time I just restrict it to one day at the weekends. A lot of the guys would look to be pushing right up the ladder and would referee on Saturdays and Sundays. I probably don’t have the same ambition there but I just try to keep myself active. If I can referee at a decent standard well so be it.

IR: And how did you come to work for the IRFU, what it a natural progression for you to get involved with the Union?

OH: Since I moved to Ireland I worked for the Special Olympics World Games which were on in Dublin in 2003. I worked on the organising committee there, and I went from there to working for an organisation called Junior Golf Ireland, which is a partnership of the governing bodies involved in golf in Ireland.

I did that for a couple of years and was then approached by the IRFU at a point in time when they were looking to get involved in Tag Rugby. They had approached me about it – one thing progressed to another, we had a bit of a chat and I ended up looking after/starting the Leisure Rugby Department from scratch.

It was just myself to start with and now I’ve got three other staff full-time and possibly more to come. We are growing all of the time. It was just through the grapevine I suppose that the IRFU heard what I was about.

I spoke to the Domestic Game Manager Kevin Potts at the time and we had a few chats and I ended up working for them. It’s a good place to work and a funny progression I suppose. I’ve never really targeted rugby as a sport to work in but that’s just the way it has worked out and I’m enjoying it.

IR: The term ‘Leisure rugby’ could be seen as a bit of a confusing one so for the uninitiated, what sort of games and schemes are run by the Union’s Leisure rugby department?

OH: On my end of it, it is predominantly Tag Rugby but in time I suppose it will incorporate a couple of things. Beach Tag Rugby at the moment is a sport we are getting more heavily involved with.

Other areas of rugby can be played at a more social type end of things, usually club rugby can be a more competitive environment.

It’s things like beach rugby which will be happening down the line, but at the moment our focus is primarily on Tag Rugby and Beach Tag Rugby.

The description of Leisure rugby is that it is fairly competitive but what happens off the field is just as important as what happens on the field.

That’s the greatest difference between it and the traditional 15-man game. At the lower level it’s socially orientated but at Tag Rugby level it’s all socially orientated.

IR: When you first took on the role, what were the main challenges you encountered and how has the Leisure rugby landscape changed in that time?

OH: It’s a competitive market place. The Irish Tag Rugby Association has been in existence for about six or seven years. It was about 2001 when they started. Initially they were in partnership with the IRFU.

The two bodies decided to part company and go their separate ways at the end of the 2006 season. That’s when I came on board to drive forward an IRFU Tag Rugby programme. Our ethos isn’t as commercially driven as the Tag Rugby Association.

It’s more about generating revenue, not so much for the IRFU but for its member clubs. That would be the main focus of what we are doing. I guess what we are trying to do is encourage new people, particularly women, into rugby activities.

Getting them involved in the rugby environment and getting them involved in the rugby community and establishing a relationship with their community club.

If they have kids and those kids go play Mini Rugby, well that means they become involved in underage structures. If they become involved in a voluntary capacity within a rugby club, that’s what we are trying to do.

Ultimately we are trying to push forward the rugby club in the community as a place to be, and as somewhere that’s vibrant and active.

IR: Day to day now, what sort of things do you have to get done as Leisure Rugby Manager, are you on the road much and is it mostly confined to looking after a summer schedule of activities?

OH: A lot of the planning and organising goes on in the off-season so to speak, October through to May. There’s a lot of liaising with the host clubs and working out structures to make sure events work.

Things like voluntary capacity, food and bars and social events, liaising with our sponsor Budweiser with whom we are delighted to have on board, meeting the needs of our sponsors and setting up plans and activities to make sure that it is attractive to people.

The promotion and recruitment starts early in the year, around January or February. There’s a lot of work that goes into it and communication is one of the key areas of making these things a success, both to your volunteers who are running a programme to the referees who are officiating in it and to the teams who play in it.

There’s a hell lot of work involved. It’s not just something that you pick up in April or May. We’ll be planning in September/October time for next summer.

IR: Just focusing on Tag Rugby, tell me a bit about the growth of Tag Rugby in the country – what sort of numbers are playing the game and do you feel it is breaking ground in terms of spreading rugby’s popularity in Ireland?

OH: There are two bodies that make up Tag Rugby. We would have over 500 teams playing in IRFU Tag Rugby activities and about 8,000 registered players with us. There’s an enormous amount of people that are playing the game and that’s great news for us.

We have started from a zero base and worked up to that figure over two years. We have 20 venues now playing Tag Rugby regularly over the summer period on a weekly basis across the spread of Ireland and into Northern Ireland as well.

It’s a great way to introduce people into a rugby environment that probably otherwise wouldn’t do so – women who don’t like the contact element of the game, or people who have less time or can’t give their time at the weekends but can come down on a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday night – run around for an hour or so and get a bit of exercise and a bit of activity and maybe a bit of social activity afterwards.

It’s a good environment from that perspective. Our greatest aim is to introduce a new audience into rugby activity and make a connection with the local rugby club within their area.

IR: Budweiser Tag really made its mark this summer, with games up and down the country, the All-Ireland championships, ‘Challenge Donncha’ and the Beach Festivals. You must have been pleased with how it all went? Are there plans already for an even bigger and better Budweiser Tag season in 2009?

OH: Definitely. We have grown from a zero base to over 500 teams in a two-year period and we will certainly be looking to grow upon that next year, working in conjunction with the host clubs that we have.

We will be looking to grow all of our venues and increasing the number of teams and the number of people that are involved. We have got great plans for expansion of the programme in 2009, and growing on what we have at present – taking on a few new venues and looking to increase the number of teams that are playing week in, week out and increasing the number of people that are involved in the games.

We are delighted with what has been achieved over the last couple of years. We have aspirations to grow on that and not to stagnate and sit still. We are looking to push forward and grow and become even bigger.

IR: Just in terms of our European neighbours and the major rugby-playing countries worldwide, is Ireland quite well set-up now in terms of Leisure rugby and retaining kids and adults playing in that sector? 

OH: We’ve got a good start anyway. I suppose we don’t have the same playing population as the UK, who would be our nearest neighbours and would probably be the ones honing in on the same sort of activity in Leisure Rugby.

The RFU has activities like ten-man rugby and are leading the way in this regard, but we are coming from a standing start and have delivered well so far, and are confident that we can keep our numbers increasing over the next few years.

IR: Is it quite difficult to keep the playing numbers at a steady level or on the increase, particularly with regards to the Tag Rugby competitions? Are there any improvements or new ideas you have that might be implementing in Leisure Rugby next year or further down the line?

OH: We are always seeking feedback from people that play the games, so we want to be mindful that you can’t just sit down and expect people to come along, you have to make what you deliver attractive to people and make sure that they enjoy it and make them want to come back.

You need a programme that is desirable. From that point of view we are always looking at new ways to play the game, whether that be variations in the length of matches, the number of people on a pitch at any given time, or the involvement that women can have.

We are always looking to modify or make the game as attractive as possible. I think the basic elements of Tag Rugby are really attractive. We need to focus primarily upon the mixed focus of the game. It’s one of the few sports where men and women can be on the pitch at the same time, because of the non-physical contact element of Tag.

We are also looking into expanding into veterans Tag, where you have got fellas that might play in a men’s situation but in an over-35s type environment where guys who may have played rugby for a number of years, and are now out of the loop a little bit – to get them back into a club environment.

It’s actually going quite well in Dublin and we are looking to grow that outside the Dublin area. In the large population centres like Cork, Galway and Limerick where there is a large tradition of playing rugby and a lot of rugby clubs. That’s certainly a target of ours to try and grow for 2009.

IR: Finally Olly, if there’s someone out there who hasn’t quite caught the Tag Rugby bug yet or wants to get involved with a rugby team, serious or otherwise, what advice would you have for them?

OH: It’s all graded so you don’t have to become a superstar to play Tag Rugby. I guess the easiest way to find out about it would be to go into the Tag Rugby section of the IRFU website.

You can find out where your local venue is, find out information about the game and find information if you are interested in becoming a referee for the code also. If you are a member of a rugby club who wants your club to become involved, you can find out information that way too.

Previous Friday Interviews:

July 11 – Jon Skurr
June 27 – John Hayes
June 20 – Lynne Cantwell
May 16 – Ronan O’Gara
May 9 – Division One Final Special
May 2 – AIB League Special
April 11 – AIB Cup Special
April 4 – David Wilkinson