THE BIG DIFFERENCE between northern and southern hemisphere rugby isn’t so much what’s seen on the field of play, but more the appetite for broadening the game’s appeal.
Stephen Ferris was on RTE’s Against The Head on Monday night and it came up that he hadn’t come from a traditional rugby school, having paved his way to international and Lions stardom along the less familiar path of junior rugby.
Ferris humbly pointed out that he wasn’t the only one to do this, with Sean O’Brien and Shane Horgan both taking the same route. There’s a few others who successfully by-passed the schools system such as John Hayes and Alan Quinlan, but overall its a shockingly short list.
The fan base in Ireland may have broadened somewhat in recent years, but at underage representative level not a lot has changed. It’s instructive to look at, for example, the Ireland under 19 squad named before the France game earlier this year.
Of the 35 players included, 30 were from fee paying schools such as Methodist, Sullivan Upper, Blackrock, Clongowes, Roscrea, and CBC Cork, two were exiles with Irish heritage, and only one came from a non traditional rugby school, that being Pat O’ Toole who attended Sancta Maria College in Louisburgh Co. Mayo.
Players who come from non-traditional rugby backgrounds, like Sean O’Brien, have helped grow the game in Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Undoubtedly some good underage players with ambitious parents get drawn towards the bigger schools, but that doesn’t account for the overwhelming reliance on fee paying schools to produce the next wave of Irish internationals.
Meanwhile at professional level, the founders of the European Rugby Champions Cup have promised us much but really what they’ve provided is a perfect illustration of how not to grow your sport; go from 24 teams to 20, make some countries feel unwelcome, get it off terrestrial TV and throw in another channel that fans have to pay for.
The same exclusive environment exists across the board at international level. The visit of Georgia on Sunday will remind most Irish fans of one of our worst ever World Cup performances but nobody here has thought about them much since because Georgia operate in the dank unloved basement of international rugby that’s known as the European Nations Cup.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the attitude is completely different as administrators fall over themselves to sell the sport and bring it to new markets.