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Irish Rugby’s Fight for Mainstream Attention

By Sam Curtin

 

By the time this issue is printed, Ireland will have already played their first game of the three match Autumn International Series against Japan. In the previous issue, the on-field action was discussed but what happens over the next few weeks and months ahead off the field is arguably just as important. 

The hype going into this autumn series is arguably lukewarm at best. Perhaps this is because New Zealand are the only big southern hemisphere team coming to the Aviva. This is reflected in the ticket sales with the All-Blacks game being the only one to sell out. Ticket prices have been a huge source of controversy over the past couple of weeks. Yours truly attempted to get his hands on tickets for New Zealand to no avail but was happy to snap up a pair of tickets for the Japanese game. The damage? €80 with the cheapest being 60. The Argentina game in two weeks’ time is a fiver more. The going rate for the All Blacks game was €125 with the cheapest being 105. Compare this to the upcoming Ireland Portugal World Cup Qualifier where tickets could be got for €30 with €65 being one of the dearest prices.

It is understandable that the IRFU want to make as much money out of the next three games considering the financial tightrope, they have had to navigate through the past 18 months as a result of empty stadiums due to Covid. However, this is quite a steep rise for fans, many of whom have also struggled economically during the pandemic. It would be a real shame if families were to be priced out of going to the games, especially when the profile of the sport needs full houses at games as it is always in tough competition with GAA and soccer among other sports.

The last survey carried out by Sport Ireland in 2019 shows that rugby is the fourth most played sport in the country. While this is unsurprising due to the profile of the aforementioned, the reality is rugby is still more of an urban private school game and so it is understandable that there may be a disconnect between the national team and the wider public. This is not necessarily a criticism of the schools, which provide a phenomenal training structure with access to top quality coaches from Ireland and abroad. However, more has to be done to entice children from non-traditional rugby backgrounds to take up the sport if Ireland ever wants to compete for a World Cup.

On that note, that task has arguably gotten more difficult in recent weeks in relation to enticing more young girls to take up the sport. Their role models, the national women’s team failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2022 after an embarrassing loss to Spain and a close defeat to Six nations rivals Scotland. It is quite the decline considering Ireland hosted the World Cup in 2017 and made the semi-finals in 2014. It is important to note that they are amateur players and the commitment they give is significant, however, they are still well resourced a fair portion of the responsibility most fall on them and the management team. The team have two internationals starting with this week against the USA before Japan come to Dublin a week later. A good place to start on the road to redemption would be victories in front of what could be record crowds for a women’s international at the RDS.

It has been a disappointing few weeks for the women’s game, where despite the inter-pros being televised live on TG4, the conditions the players were forced to prepare in were shocking and degrading. Dressing rooms were not allowed to be upon due to covid regulations at the time and so players were forced to change outside in heavy rain and for some players, beside rubbish bins. Why would someone want to try and become the best rugby player they can be when this is how they are treated? It’s a real shame as there are some exciting players coming through such as teenage winger Beibhinn Parsons. Not having her play in New Zealand next year on TV is a huge opportunity missed for the women’s game. An independent review has been launched into the World Cup failure and the overall state of the sport in Ireland. Only time will tell if it will be a stepping stone to greater things.

To summarise, the next couple of weeks could tell a lot about the future of Irish rugby and where it goes from here. The World Cup in France 2023 is on the horizon and a scalp against the All Black would be the perfect way to welcome fans back into the stadium, and hopefully Irish rugby as a whole. Let’s wait and see.