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

More than half the population can’t fit some sort of physical exercise into their week

John Treacy, CEO of Sport Ireland, at the launch of the Irish Sports Monitor report in Dublin. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

John Treacy, CEO of Sport Ireland, at the launch of the Irish Sports Monitor report in Dublin. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

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. Gym activity

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.

Physicality

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 on Saturday 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. 

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