The IRFU have begun to address what has become a critical issue of large numbers of players falling out of the game. Following a study conducted by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) it was shown
there are two key pressure points in the life cycle of young players, the most dramatic of which occurs at 11 to 12 years old, when they move from primary to secondary education and 50 per cent of them stop playing the game.
Another significant fall-off has been identified as the move out of secondary level education, when 18 per cent of rugby players drop out of the sport within three to four years.
Some of the research came from a December 2013 report by the ESRI called "Keeping them in the game" which highlighted worrying numbers of young people dropping out of sport and examined the participation levels across a number of areas. The IRFU then engaged with the Institute to discover more about why their members were giving up rugby.
It appears the anecdotal evidence of mothers not wishing their children to play or individuals becoming fed up with or disillusioned with the game are not the reasons young people fall away. Difficult life transitions such as moving school, leaving school or beginning employment appear to be determining factors as well as teenagers clearing their locker to concentrate on sixth year exams.
"There really is a big shake out in the transition between primary and secondary school," said the ESRI's Pete Lunn. "But that drop is not driven by how much the kids enjoy the sport. There are a ton of changes to be made in the lifestyle of the kids. If they keep it up rugby holds on to kids well in secondary level until sixth year, where there is a substantial drop and then again when people leave school. Between fifth year and the year after they leave school almost half of the people leave rugby."
There are 6,295 13-year-old players registered with the IRFU playing schools and club rugby. It is difficult to give a true figure of participation in mini rugby at age 11-12 as there are factors that skew the numbers such as non registration and double registration, where players can be registered both through their club and school.
At 13-years-old registrations are more complete and the participation levels in mini rugby can be conservatively estimated at around the 8,800 mark tending towards 10,000. Those numbers show that of those who begin playing early, up to 5,000 will have given up by the time they become teenagers.
While the Leaving Cert is shown to have an impact with a drop off in participation in sixth year, the statistical models show those children who play sport generally do better in the exam than those who don’t.
"The kids with the worst grades are the ones who play no sport . . . People who play sport usually do better and particularly females," says behavioural economist Lunn. There are caveats, and boys who drop out of rugby for the Leaving Cert may do better. The fall-off in sixth year is also larger in middle-class children, who hope to go to third level education.
But despite the fall-off rugby faces up well to other sports. In basketball three quarters of those aged 16 years or more won't play the game within three to four years. In GAA it is is 50 per cent, soccer 23.4 per cent and rugby 18.3 per cent. "Rugby has very little drop-off across the 20s," says Lunn. "It's all between 11-years-old and 13-years-old and then 17-years-old and 20-years-old. The issue isn't getting kids involved in sport, it's keeping them involved.
The next issue the IRFU face is how to address it.