Rugby: the peo­ple’s game no­body seems to be play­ing

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Ian O’Riordan

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent sur­vey, nine out of 10 peo­ple be­lieve that hav­ing one glass of red wine a day is good for their health. What the hell is wrong with the other guy?

Ac­tu­ally that’s the prob­lem with sur­veys. Most of the things we like to mea­sure are open to their own in­ter­pre­ta­tion, and the re­sults can of­ten be anec­do­tal at best. Some peo­ple I know be­lieve hav­ing one bot­tle of red wine a day is very good for their health, only would rather not ad­mit it. That’s as­sum­ing they even stop at one bot­tle.

There is that sense with some of the re­sults of Sport Ire­land’s lat­est mea­sure of adult par­tic­i­pa­tion in sport and phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity. The now bi­en­nial Ir­ish Sports Mon­i­tor re­port, first pub­lished in 2007, sur­veyed 8,842 peo­ple over the age of 16 – a sort of health-check on our sport­ing-mad na­tion – and some of the re­sults are a lit­tle sur­pris­ing. Not just when com­pared to other years.

Most peo­ple have their own in­ter­pre­ta­tion and def­i­ni­tion of sport, and es­pe­cially phys­i­cal ex­er­cise, al­though ac­cord­ing to the let­ter of the law (i.e. the Sport Ire­land Act), and for the pur­poses of the 119-page Ir­ish Sports Mon­i­tor re­port, it in­cludes “all forms of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity which through ca­sual or reg­u­lar par­tic­i­pa­tion aim at ex­press­ing or im­prov­ing phys­i­cal fit­ness and men­tal well-be­ing and at form­ing so­cial re­la­tion­ships”.

Phew. The 26-page sur­vey which fed into the re­port was a lit­tle more spe­cific, and didn’t in­clude any phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity for work or do­mes­tic pur­poses (such as cut­ting the grass or run­ning up the stairs). Pity, some might say. Still, it all sounds slightly or per­haps de­lib­er­ately am­bigu­ous.

Seven days

Those sur­veyed were first asked about any phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity in the last seven days, then asked to list up to three sports or ac­tiv­i­ties in the or­der in which they most par­tic­i­pated. When ev­ery­thing was rounded up the end re­sult is that 43 per cent of the Ir­ish pop­u­la­tion (ap­prox­i­mately 1.6 mil­lion peo­ple) par­tic­i­pate in sport at least once a week, ef­fec­tively the same as last recorded in 2015.

What the hell is wrong with the other 57 per cent? We all have the oc­ca­sional ex­cuse not to get out and sit in front of the TV in­stead, but when more than half the pop­u­la­tion can’t fit some sort of phys­i­cal ex­er­cise into their week maybe we aren’t such a sport­ing-mad na­tion af­ter all.

That’s not ac­tu­ally the most sur­pris­ing part. There are some pos­i­tive signs, in­clud­ing an in­crease in the pro­por­tion that are “highly ac­tive”, with al­most a third (32.6 per cent) now achiev­ing the min­i­mum level of ac­tiv­ity set by the Na­tional Phys­i­cal Ac­tiv­ity Guide­lines.

In­creased in­volve­ment by women in sport also means the gen­der gap in par­tic­i­pa­tion is at its low­est since the Ir­ish Sports Mon­i­tor be­gan – drop­ping from 15.7 per cent in 2007 to just 4.5 per cent, with 40.8 per cent of Ir­ish women now par­tic­i­pat­ing in sport com­pared to 45.3 per cent of men.

What is prob­a­bly most sur­pris­ing is the ac­tual break down of that sport­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion, with per­sonal ex­er­cise, essen­tially some sort of gym ac­tiv­ity, still the most pop­u­lar at 12.4 per cent, fol­lowed by swim­ming (8.5 per cent), run­ning (6.2 per cent), cy­cling (5.1 per cent), soc­cer (4.1 per cent) and then danc­ing (2.8 per cent). Do we re­ally have more peo­ple swim­ming than run­ning?

Golf comes in at num­ber seven (2.5 per cent), ahead of Gaelic foot­ball (2 per cent), yoga (2.0 per cent), weights (1.6 per cent), pi­lates (1.2 per cent) and then hurl­ing/camo­gie (1.1 per cent) – and the rest all less than 1 per cent. This or­der re­mains the same as 2015, with the ex­cep­tion of Gaelic foot­ball, which is now the eighth most pop­u­lar, one up on 2015.

No prizes for guess­ing the one glar­ing ab­sence. Rugby may well be our most pop­u­lar and suc­cess­ful sport of mod­ern times, only this isn’t be­ing re­flected in par­tic­i­pa­tion lev­els, at least not when com­pared to other sports or phys­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties.

Some things do need to be fac­tored in: this seem­ingly neg­li­gent level of rugby par­tic­i­pa­tion among the adult pop­u­la­tion is cer­tainly not unique to Ire­land, or in­deed some other ma­jor field sports such as Amer­i­can foot­ball, which is hardly played at all out­side the US high school/col­lege/pro­fes­sional arena.


Those who do play rugby, com­pet­i­tively or recre­ation­ally, wouldn’t read­ily com­pare it with sports such as danc­ing, yoga or pi­lates, and there is also a phys­i­cal­ity about the mod­ern game, plus a height­ened aware­ness of the dan­gers of re­cur­rent con­cus­sion, which may also be im­pact­ing on any wider par­tic­i­pa­tion lev­els.

Also the high­est level of any par­tic­i­pa­tion in Ir­ish sport by gen­der and age is in the male aged 16-19 cat­e­gory (78.4 per cent), and rugby would cer­tainly fea­ture here, be­fore the ob­vi­ously dra­matic drop-off which comes soon af­ter, even by those al­ready bulked up far be­yond their years.

Rugby doesn’t fea­ture ei­ther when it comes to club mem­ber­ship, al­though it is the fourth most pop­u­lar sport when it comes to events be­ing at­tended (be­hind Gaelic foot­ball, soc­cer, and hurl­ing camo­gie), and it also fea­tures as the fourth most pop­u­lar sport when it comes to adult vol­un­teer­ing on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, at 0.6 per cent, be­hind Gaelic foot­ball (3.4 per cent), soc­cer (2.2 per cent), and hurl­ing/camo­gie (2 per cent).

Throw­ing a ball

Part of the anom­aly here is that rugby has never been more pop­u­lar in Ire­land – 1.3 mil­lion view­ers tuned into TV3 for the Grand Slam win over Eng­land on St Pa­trick’s Day. If Le­in­ster can claim another Cham­pi­ons Cup ti­tle in Bil­bao to­mor­row evening that pop­u­lar­ity will fur­ther soar, even if very few of us are throw­ing a ball out on the streets af­ter­wards, act­ing like we’re Isa Nacewa or Scott Fardy.

There has al­ways been some dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion be­tween the lev­els of par­tic­i­pa­tion and pop­u­lar­ity of sport, and the pages of this news­pa­per are no ex­cep­tion. Rugby al­ready knows its proper place in Ir­ish sport, even if that means be­ing the peo­ple’s game that no­body seems to be play­ing.

Rugby doesn’t fea­ture ei­ther when it comes to club mem­ber­ship, al­though it is the fourth most pop­u­lar sport when it comes to events be­ing at­tended

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