More children and adults are playing rugby – the challenge is to keep them playing

Rugby has increased in popularity, with children and young adults in Ireland more likely to play rugby than in previous generations. The findings are contained in an ESRI report on participation in rugby, commissioned by the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and published today.

The research exploits five separate data sources, including one from Northern Ireland. The findings reveal similar patterns of participation in rugby over time and by social group on both sides of the border.

Just over 1 per cent of adults play regular rugby, while among children aged under 13 the active participation rate is over 10 per cent and has increased strongly in recent decades. Rugby therefore makes a substantial contribution to levels of physical activity among young people.

The challenge identified by the report is to keep them active. Many children who play drop out when they go from primary to second-level school or when they leave school. This pattern of drop-out is seen for other popular team sports and represents a primary issue for policymakers trying to keep young people active. 

While the large majority of rugby players are still male, the proportion of females who play has increased. The most recent data also shows that one-third of spectators at rugby matches are female.

In common with other sports, rugby is played more by people of higher socio-economic status, although this varies across the provinces. In Munster the sport has a broader social base and participation is highest.

The majority of adults who play rugby are motivated by the benefits to health and wellbeing. The frequency, intensity and duration of their participation suggest that most players derive substantial health benefits from playing rugby, provided they avoid serious injury. Tag and touch rugby now account for more than 10% of adult participation and a higher proportion among the over 25s. 

Report author, Dr. Elish Kelly, said “Rugby makes an increasing contribution to young people’s physical activity. However, while we found low drop-out rates among adults, drop-out is a problem among children, especially when they move between or leave schools. Our research also suggests clear opportunities to get more women and people from lower socio-economic groups involved in rugby.”

IRFU spokesperson Stephen McNamara said, “Since the commissioning of the report, the ESRI has provided the IRFU with baseline data and insight which has influenced strategy and policy. This has allowed the IRFU to enable the Branches, Clubs and Schools to make changes to the delivery of rugby and create more opportunities for young males and females to access the game. The report has influenced the development of new rugby offerings to increase the participation of new communities with modified formats like Play Rugby and XRugby and the creation of female-specific programmes in schools and clubs. Operationally it has modernised the deployment of development staff and the tracking of rugby development to ensure optimal impact in player and game development, while maximising the engagement of youth in sport.”