The recent easing of public health measures has provided a huge boost to everyone in domestic rugby. Clubs and schools are an essential outlet for health and well-being and there is real optimism that they can return to meeting the needs of our community without restriction.
Safety has always been paramount in rugby, aligned with this is a focus on driving a positive rugby experience for everyone who wants to be part of the game. IRFU Rugby Development Director Colin McEntee outlines his approach to what’s come down the track for Irish Rugby.
Collie, what is the current picture for domestic rugby in the four provinces?
Right now, the picture is optimistic. Our growth figures are trending upwards, but I think it’s fair to say we’ve been in survival mode for most of the last two years.
When we first went into lockdown, our priority was just to ensure all our clubs survived it and we achieved that. Those first few months were quite scary and we should never forget what volunteers did to reach out to the vulnerable people in their communities.
From our own viewpoint, we had the IRFU Continuity Fund of €500,000 operational within the first month and then we worked closely with provinces and clubs on emergency government funding that provided over €6.5 million to rugby clubs in 2020 and 2021. Most recently we had the Sport Ireland equipment grant of almost €400,000 which will provide a boost to clubs and schools.
This season has been more about recovery than survival. At the halfway point, we had 5,575 games played and 83,228 players registered on our RugbyConnect system. After that you’re looking at another 132,000 playing rugby mainly through the Aldi Play Rugby programme in Schools but also through Canterbury Give It A Try for girls in clubs.
How much impact has COVID had on our strategic planning?
I came into my current role as Rugby Development Director in April 2019 and it was less than 12 months later when COVID-19 took over.
We launched our last Strategic Plan in October 2018 but over half of that time has been consumed by the pandemic. The world has changed since and our strategy needs to change with it.
What we have are more teams in more clubs than we had four years ago. We have 521 active teams for women and girls alone, which is an all-time high, but there’s more we can do to strengthen the numbers playing for those teams and we want more opportunities for girls playing rugby in schools.
What drives us now is a positive rugby experience. We want more people playing the game of rugby and the data we have tells us that is happening, but if we want new players to stick with it, they must have the right experience from the start. Equally we know that we’ll lose players who aren’t enjoying themselves.
We must look at the environment around the game. How are we being inclusive and welcoming people into our clubs? Do we have facilities and equipment we can be proud of? Are we resourcing players with volunteers, coaches, and referees? Are we best in class for safeguarding?
We have a great game, and we need to match that with positive experiences.
How are we working towards the change that is needed?
The pandemic forced us to restructure our Rugby Development Department and we’ve had to look at new ways to lead and to govern. We’ve learned to be more agile and responsive to the needs of our community. Technology has helped us to engage more directly and more often with our stakeholders.
That’s helped us to do a better job of listening and that in turn has helped us to be more honest about what we’re doing. We’ve had blind spots. There are things we need to improve on. We need to ask ourselves how we are connected to the people in our game.
I also believe we need to do a better job of showing people that we care. IRFU and provincial staff are rugby people, and we care deeply and passionately about the people in our game. If players know that we care about them as people, they are a lot more likely to choose rugby.
What’s next on the agenda?
Well as I’ve said, we need to be more agile, more connected, and more caring.
Once the findings of the Women In Rugby Action Plan Review are available, that will help us to continue our work in getting that alignment between the domestic game and high performance rugby. We’ll also be looking at competition structures for both men and women in rugby.
We’re also going to be putting more of a focus on research to help us see a bit further down the road for rugby. The positive rugby experience is our north star but we need to do some more work to see what the sentiment is like at present and what players really want from that experience.
Rugby is a choice we want people to make. So, we need to offer them a menu with enough options to cater for their needs. We want rugby to be a positive influence in their life, not an additional pressure in their life.
Finally, we’re seeing trophies being lifted at the business end of the season again. What’s that been like?
We’ve been just so energised and so relieved to see finals being contested again. There were over 3,000 people at the Energia All-Ireland Junior Cup final in Belfast last weekend. We’re looking forward to our first Energia AIL finals in three years with the Women’s Division finals coming our way on February 26th.
It’s wonderful to see schools cup back up and running too. We want people to be excited about the chance to make these memories again.
It’s not like we need to make wholesale changes to our game. It’s about evolution, not revolution. The values are there. The game is there. We’re going in the right direction.