The post-lockdown health of domestic rugby in Ireland is coming into view now that players are returning to competition for the 2021/22 season. There are clear signs of growth for women and girls in the game who are being provided with meaningful playing opportunities for the first time since March 2020.
There are currently 5,800 girls active across 68 U14 Girls teams, 64 U16 Girls teams and 56 U18 Girls teams. There are 2,784 women playing across 81 adult women’s teams.
Available data on player numbers is now drawn from the IRFU’s RugbyConnect system.
RugbyConnect is an online administration system to help club volunteers manage player registration, safeguarding and competition administration all on one platform. The system being centralised means the IRFU have direct access to confirmed and accurate data around player numbers on a weekly basis.
RugbyConnect went online in 2020 and the registration of mini rugby players is in the process of being migrated to the platform, but data from the 2021 Canterbury Give It A Programme provides a snapshot of participation for girls aged 8-14. 84 clubs ran the programme in 2021 with 1,679 girls getting a rugby ball into their hand over the summer.
Colin McEntee is IRFU Director of Rugby Development:
“While we have to be realistic about where we are at, we are really positive about where we are going,” he said.
“We don’t have the biggest participation numbers among field sports, but we have clear signs of growth based on accurate data and the power of a positive rugby experience.
“I’ve been really impressed with the attitudes of clubs in opening up their gates to more women and girls and putting the right resources in place. We’ve been saying this for a while now, but domestic rugby will fail to be sustainable if it is not inclusive.
“For the clubs that are being more inclusive, it is having a transformational effect on their recruitment and their culture. Rugby clubs are a lot more reflective of the communities they serve than they may have been in the past. That’s what will help them grow into the future.”
Other available data shows where women and girls are getting involved on the other side of the touchline. 764 female coaches have been identified within the system. There are 283 female representatives on club committees and 55 involved at branch level.
In additional to wider development resources being in place, there are initiatives in club leadership and leadership development specifically designed to support and accelerate the development of women in leadership roles. One example is the IRFU President’s National Mentoring Programme which selects 20 mentees to receive individual mentoring on an ongoing basis throughout the rugby season.
The education system also remains a key building block of the IRFU player pathway for women and girls. There are 14 third level colleges with rugby programmes while an estimated 29,451 girls have already taken their first step onto the pathway through the Aldi Play Rugby programme in primary schools.
In its submission to the Oireachtas Special Committee on COVID-19 Response, the IRFU reported in 2020 that there was “continued growth in the Aldi Play Rugby programme for school children while female youth rugby was on course for an 18% increase in both active and participant players.”
Colin McEntee believes we are a while away from gaining a complete picture of the damage caused by the pandemic on domestic rugby.
“Clubs and schools have overcome significant challenges just to get operational again and we’re not out of the woods yet. RugbyConnect has helped us to get a snapshot of what’s happening but it will take the full season to get a true understanding of where we are at.
“We expect our numbers to increase somewhat for the season as new offerings come on stream and we see the impact of the programmes we’ve already been running. If you look at the Canterbury Give It A Try Programme, there’s about a 50% success rate in converting programme participants into club membership, which is excellent.
“There are also reviews ongoing into the wider structures for the game and we are fully invested in ensuring success at the high performance end of the rugby pathway by giving more girls access to that positive rugby experience in the first place.”