WITH OVER 20,000 players and a 50:50 male-to-female ratio, tag rugby is one of the fastest growing and most unique sports in the country.
A largely volunteer-based organisation, the Irish Tag Rugby Association (ITRA) has been in existence since 2000 and — apart from a small drop off in the mid-2000s owing to the recession — has been growing ever since.
Last year, the association joined International Tag Federation (ITF), thereby aligning itself with other countries where tag is already hugely popular, including New Zealand and Australia.
Distinct from the IRFU version of the sport, ITRA is by far the largest and most popular tag organisation in the country. Their growing success has paved the way for a number of intriguing matches this summer, where an Irish national team, as well as a number of regional sides from counties such as Dublin and Galway, will take on Great Britain and Australia in a series of matches.
The Irish team’s first test gets underway later today — as they prepare to face the Australians, who are expected to bring roughly 60 players on the tour. Unsurprisingly, the visitors are strong favourites ahead of the encounter — they have roughly five times as many participants to choose from and while 98% of Irish players are aged 21 and 35, their opponents have had the time and the resources to put an underage structure from under-14 level up in place.
One of those involved in the Irish set-up is Barry Keary, who manages one of the top club sides — KPMG Exiles.
While the Irish side would be expected to beat Britain, who haven’t been involved in the involved in the sport as long as them, Keary says that even just one win against Australia would represent significant progress.
“The Australia men’s team have never lost,” he says. “So to win any would be a really good start.
“How far behind are we [to Australia]? I don’t really know yet. We’re ahead of the UK, as they only started five years ago. Last year, against the UK, we lost the ladies test by a couple of points, but we won the men’s and the mixed test comprehensively. They probably have around 10,000 players. But it’s hard to know, because they put a team into the last World Cup. They only won two matches and they drew one, but the one they drew was against the Australian team that went on to win the World Cup.”
Keary adds that implementing the sport at schools’ level — as the Australians have done — is the ultimate aim, as far as the ITRA are concerned.
“I think it’s possibly something they missed out on and could have done earlier on but didn’t. And I think it’s something that they are going to try and fix.”
Keary initially became involved in the sport, which is similar to rugby league in that six tags lead to a turnover, as an after-work activity in his job at KPMG.
Perhaps surprisingly, he explains how not all of those who thrive in the sport are keen players of full-contact rugby. He estimates that only about 50% of those involved have ever played tag’s decidedly more physical equivalent and believes a team of full-contact rugby players can in fact be more of a hindrance than a help.
“Pace is a huge attribute in the sport,” he says. “Playing rugby isn’t necessarily an advantage, because what you tend to find is that if you have a team of just rugby players, they’ll run very structured plays, they’ll run switch passes, they’ll run all these different moves that they’ve learned and they’ll tend to be overly elaborate with the ball, so you’re better off having three or four rugby players and three or four who haven’t played rugby. It just works better in my personal opinion.”
Furthermore, with the sport having enjoyed a 25% growth since the turn of the year alone, does Keary believe that it can become significantly more popular?
“I think it can once people realise you can actually represent your country. Getting it recognised officially as an actual sport, having funding from the sports federation and things like that is probably a five or 10-year process.
“These are the baby steps at the start — getting the national side set up, making it attractive, playing it at elite level, entering teams in the World Cup and hopefully doing well.”
(Image credit: Tag Rugby Ireland)
Moreover, one reason for the sport’s burgeoning popularity is its accessibility to women — approximately half of its participants are female.
“It’s the one sport where it is a level playing field and having really good female players is a huge advantage in mixed. This would just be my personal opinion, but I don’t think the guys use the girls as well as they should in play. I think that’s one area where Australia will be stronger than us, because they treat everybody exactly the same in terms of the rules that they run and stuff like that. It is actually a sport where it’s encouraged that it is 50:50.
“At social level, a girl try is three versus one [for men], whereas at elite level, it’s two versus one. That will change ultimately to one versus one, but it was part of the initial plan to get girls involved.”
One individual who is benefiting from the sport’s emphasis on diversity is Emer O’Mahony. Along with her sister Laura, she is representing Ireland in the mixed international games with Australia.
She notes the qualities required to thrive at elite level.
“Speed is a huge advantage, as is being agile — there’s a lot of swivelling and moving your hips and things like that… Unlike [full-contact] rugby, it’s not strength or size that makes a difference.”
In addition, she says that the standard among female participants is strong — to an extent that any stereotypical attitudes that the men might have are quickly alleviated.
“When boys start out, they might initially be wondering ‘can that girl catch’. But the minute they get into the game, there’s none of that. They just realise: ‘Wait this girl is able and she can play and she’s worth two points to us.’ Lads are after seeing that society would see women as weaker sports players than men. But in tag, women would be seen as equals.”
A keen player of full-contact rugby as well, O’Mahony initially took up tag in her early teens when women her age weren’t allowed to play full-contact.
However, times have changed and there is now an underage team in her native Tralee.
“So they can play full-contact. I think there are differences in the rules. There is no pushing in the scrums and things like that, but back then, there was none.”
(Image credit: Tag Rugby Ireland)
She admits that playing both with and against her sister is a surreal experience.
“I would have played with her all along, but in tag, we’d be in opposition, because she’s in Limerick and I’m in Dublin, and she got picked for the Limerick region and I was the Dublin region. That was one of the first times we played each other competitively.
“Then, when we got the news about the [Irish] team announcement, it was great. Because I was delighted for her and then I realised I made it too, which was even better. Our parents are big supporters of everything we do, so they were thrilled as well.”
O’Mahony, who has also participated in a number of other sports including judo, county football and athletics, believes that “word of mouth” is primarily responsible for the sport’s growing popularity.
“It’s a great summer sport — something to do in the fine evenings, so that’s probably attracting people, and the fact that it’s so much fun.
“You go along and you realise, I want to go next week. The mixed aspect is something different and attractive in itself — it’s a good social scene. And for the players who want to progress more, they can go to the Premiership leagues.
“It’s fantastic. This new international set-up has come along and allowed players who are good at it to represent their countries. It’s great the time they’re putting into it.”
And on the topic of the upcoming tests, despite their underdog status, O’Mahony believes the Irish team can give the Australians a serious challenge in these upcoming games.
“I think we have a good chance, because the set-up this year is great. I wasn’t involved last year, so I’m not 100% sure what the story was then, but I really think they pushed us towards this year.
“Even before trials or even before the regions last year, they have a new Premiership structure that has even our little club teams performing better because everyone is more aware of the rules, so that better prepared us and then we got to the regions and again, that was making us compete at a higher level week in week out, which makes us better individually. And with the extra training and stuff, it’s going to bring us on again. So I think we’ll be really prepared for [Australia] and we’ve a good shot.”
The Irish team play the first test match against Australia in UCD from 11am today. For more info, visit tagrugby.ie.