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March 2, 2024
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Ireland’s Call: The Story of Irish Rugby. Part 3

By Guest Writer “AussieIrish”

Due to unforeseen circumstances, Part 3 of the series is both a little later and shorter than intended. My apologies for that. Some people might say that the enforced brevity is a to everyone’s benefit. But nonetheless, I trust you will find something in this week’s article to keep the conversation going for a few more days… 

Just like in Australia, Ireland has multiple sports competing for the hearts and minds of players and punters alike.  Administered by the Gaelic Athletic Associations (GAA), Ireland’s Gaelic games are the most popular sports, and the heart-blood of local communities on the island of Ireland. If you hear someone in Ireland say that they play “GAA” (pronounced like “Galah” without the “l” in the middle), you might want to clarify which sport that are referring to. The primary contenders are: 

  • Gaelic football – a bit like Aussie rules on a rectangular field and with a round soccer-like ball  
  • Hurling (men) / Camogie (women) – a good description I found of this was it being a “a cross between hockey and murder”.  If you’ve never seen the sport this short clip from 60 Minutes in America will give a bit of an idea 

The important thing to note with the GAA is that it is all amateur with all profits from ticket sales and licensing being funnelled back to the game, the local clubs and their communities.  While playing GAA for a club in your town or parish brings a sense of pride to the player and their family (ever seen Irish tourists in Australia wearing their jumpers?), if a player wants to become a true professional athlete they must look elsewhere. And we have seen that occur with any number of players turning to Australian Rules football in recent years. Since the Melbourne Football Club first trialled their ‘Irish Experiment’ in 1984, AFL has seen the the likes of Jim Stynes, Tadhg Kennelly and now even women players such as Ailish Considine make a successful transition. And I believe this sort of cross-coding can also benefit rugby with GAA players building skills and athleticism in these sports before turning to rugby.   

Some of the more notable rugby players in more recent times that showed promise in GAA include the likes of Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw, and Geordan Murphy. It is rumoured that Beauden Barrett also showed promise as an aspiring GAA player before his family made the fateful decision to move back to New Zealand.   

While you might quickly conclude that the switching from GAA to rugby is limited to those wearing numbers 10 through 15, think again. Take a moment to watch and enjoy this clip of Tadhg Furlong in action (watch for the pick-up in particular):

Next on the list is soccer (or football depending on where you are from). Given the long-shared history and geographical proximity to the UK and the rest of Europe, it is of little wonder.  While there is a professional football competition in Ireland, it is the English Premier League that tends to get the attention. For juniors is common to play football on a Saturday and rugby on a Sunday. Despite lacking evidence to back it up, I suspect that if a young player showed promise in both soccer and rugby that soccer would be the sport pursued. 

While exact numbers are hard to come by, based on what I have been able to find, rugby looks to be in a distant 3rd place in terms of players.  There seem to be somewhere in the vicitiny of 400,000 playing GAA, a similar number playing soccer, and ~150,000 playing rugby. 

What does all this mean? 

Based on World Rugby data Here Australia still has roughly twice the number of players as Ireland.  

On this basis, my position would be that Australian rugby union needs to stop focussing on rugby league as being the “competition” and instead look at opportunities to form partnerships based on the common aspects of the games to bring mutual benefit.  Make no mistake, they are all very different games. But as can be seen with the GAA and rugby in Ireland, basic ball skills, fitness etc are common.  Another area of focus should be on the community, structures, and pathways to make the most of the talent that is already available. Placing the focus on these aspects of the game will then hopefully attract others to the sport and start putting Australian rugby back on track.


Besties. (pic credit to SMH)

Anyway, there is my offering. I hope you enjoyed it. Please use the comments below to share additional perspectives and thoughts. I’m especially interested if people think that rugby and league could find some common ground for the common good after the years of ‘cross poaching’ and given the recent public comments and criticisms of the other from the two heads of their respective games in Australia – Peter V’landys and Hamish McLennan. Or is the acrimony too deep?

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