The Irish Rugby Football Union today published the details of a recent programme of Club Engagement meetings that it undertook. The report shows that there is vibrancy in the club game but also significant challenges to address.
The IRFU, in conjunction with the four provincial branches, set out to meet with its member clubs to listen to the challenges facing Irish club rugby.
Throughout the whole process, 94% of all clubs in Ireland engaged in the initiative through 42 individual meetings convened in 21 different venues across Ireland.
The meetings provided an ideal opportunity for the IRFU to communicate the state and structure of the game and to share information on how revenue is generated and subsequently distributed for the development of rugby.
It also allowed the club representatives the opportunity to ask direct questions and to convey their concerns to the IRFU.
As well as the engagement meetings, independent research was commissioned to provide an overall picture of where the game rests in the fabric of modern Ireland.
The research, by Millward Brown Lansdowne, was directed at participants not actively involved in the game and produced results that demonstrated the increased interest in the game.
Overall, 72% believe rugby makes a significant contribution to Irish society, with 59% agreeing strongly that success for Irish rugby improves the image of Ireland internationally.
The research also pointed to the ethos and traditions of rugby, such as fair play, respect and team work as the main reasons why parents wanted their children to take up rugby. This positioning gives Irish rugby the ideal springboard to continue its growth at grassroots level and beyond.
One of the main areas of interest at the meetings was how funding is generated and distributed in Irish rugby.
The symbiotic relationship between all levels of rugby was articulated at the meetings, but what was clear was that not all understood that the Ireland team is the main revenue generator, providing 81% of the IRFU’s revenue, with provincial participation in ERC/PRO12 contributing an additional 13% of income.
In order for the national team to remain competitive, there is a requirement for the IRFU to reinvest considerably (47% of expenditure) to support the professional provincial teams and academies. The IRFU allocates over €;9m of revenue (17% of all expenditure) to grassroots rugby.
The meetings also brought up several key issues, with at least one if not all, were commonly affecting clubs across Ireland.
- Finance – many clubs are finding it difficult to balance income and expenditure
- Emigration – player numbers are being impacted by movements in society, especially in rural areas
- Social changes – clubs are having to deal with time limited players, and with the emergence of ‘Generation Y’
- Volunteering – the culture has changed, and players are no longer converting to volunteers in the same numbers
Outside of these challenges, other areas that arose included adult rugby, where there were discussions about how to work on reinstating club traditions and ethos of the past to protect the values of Irish rugby.
The erosion of social rugby has been replaced by the emergence of alternative options, such as Touch and Tag Rugby, something the IRFU is now looking to cultivate further. It was also felt that financial inducements were detrimental to club loyalty and also deterring club volunteers.
In age grade rugby, the growth of the underage game has continued, but has put stress on facilities. The positives have been the willingness of parents to be involved in this level, but there was a need to assist them by improving the accessibility to coaching qualifications.
Clubs also saw the Club Community Rugby Officers employed by the provincial branches as essential in terms of developing and recruiting players.
One of the standout points from all of the meetings was the desire for clubs and schools to work in partnership, possibly allowing for a smoother transfer from schools rugby to the club environment.
In Women’s rugby, the meetings supported the evidence that numbers are growing considerably in the youth sections and clubs were effusive in their support for bringing more numbers and teams into their clubs, with the main challenge being that a small but growing female player base needs to cater for social players.
The full report gives greater detail into these and other issues raised at the Club Engagement meetings, including an overall action plan to address the outcomes.
IRFU Director of Rugby Development and the Club Game, Scott Walker, who facilitated and attended all of the meetings, said: “What was encouraging from the very first meeting was the number of committed and passionate volunteers who were prepared to meet and discuss the issues facing Irish club rugby.
“All of the 42 meetings were open forums to discuss whatever people felt was important to the future of the sport at club level.
“A range of issues were put on the table in full and sometimes heated discussions, but I believe everybody left each meeting with a better understanding.
“What originally started as a desire to communicate directly with the clubs has furnished the IRFU with invaluable information to allow us to tackle these issues.
“The recent outward perception has always been that the club game is in decline. The numbers that we have in terms of players and the emergence of new clubs, as well as the strengthening of junior clubs, has always opposed that perception and the meetings gave us further evidence on how vibrant the game is.
“However, there is no doubt there are significant challenges in terms of finances, emigration and drop off in playing numbers transitioning between youth and schools levels to the adult game.
“More favourable problems, such as the explosion of interest in the game at underage and mini levels, has seen clubs to struggle to cope with the demand in terms of their facilities and numbers of coaches, so these are just some of the bigger long terms issues that need to be addressed.”
He added: “From a competition structure level, it was evident that many clubs advocated a need for greater ties with local schools to maximise interest and facilities.
“Also, one of the most important points to come out was in regard to the Ulster Bank League. While the agreement with the clubs for the league was for it to remain in place for five seasons, it was striking that many felt that while the new format has been good, that the clubs and Union need to review it much earlier, something that the IRFU and branches are now committed to do as one of a number of actions emanating from the meetings.
“Overall, the Club Engagement meetings provided a clear understanding of some of the areas where the IRFU were already focusing on, but also some where we need to look more closely at.
“The exercise was incredibly important for the club game and I would like to thank all of those who gave up their time to meet with the IRFU and branch representatives.”
Related Links –
Download the IRFU Club Engagement Report