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Dublin: 0 °C Monday 21 January, 2019

'The people's game' - A debate about rugby on last night's Against the Head has got people talking

‘There are people who wouldn’t have an opinion on an All-Ireland hurling or football final or a soccer international who will be engaged with this.’

RTÉ’S AGAINST THE Head aired last night as we count down to this weekend’s penultimate round of Six Nations matches.

Against the Head Pope, O'Sullivan and Jackman. Source: RTÉ.ie

As Ireland prepare to take on Scotland in Dublin on Saturday ahead of a St Patrick’s Day meeting with England at Twickenham — where the Grand Slam could potentially be on offer — a panel of Brent Pope, Eddie O’Sullivan and Bernard Jackman had a discussion on just how big the sport has become in Ireland.

“Rugby’s huge in this country,” said New Zealander Pope. “I’ve been covering it for two decades and you might have got viewership figures of 50 or 60,000 for the Six Nations — now they would be over a million.”

Presenter Daire O’Brien then came in: “Every crevasse of Irish life… everybody goes somewhere to watch the game, everybody has an opinion. Arguably, it’s the people’s game.”

Pope added: “The players have become accessible. You look at the Irish football team and a lot of the players are plying their trade overseas. So people don’t get to walk into a supermarket and see Brian O’Driscoll or these guys. They do over in this country. That has made the game grow.”

O’Brien went on to claim that while rugby may be a minority sport in terms of participation, Joe Schmidt’s side are “up there close to the Jack’s Army thing in the ’80s or the great hurling of the ’90s’ when it comes to public interest.

Former Ireland head coach Eddie O’Sullivan added: “The demographic has changed, probably in the last 15 years, in particular. There are much more people engaged with the game, but not necessarily going to games.

“If you think back to before that change, most people who went to rugby games would be somehow involved in the club game. They would be attached to a club. The vast majority of people going to Leinster, Munster, Ulster or Connacht [now] wouldn’t necessarily go to any club games at all or have any affiliation. Their club is their province, and that’s a big change.”

Let me put it this way,” said O’Brien. “There are people who wouldn’t have an opinion on an All-Ireland hurling or football final or a soccer international. They will have an opinion and be engaged with this. It’s absolutely throughout society.”

Ex-Ireland international Jackman then credited the IRFU for their work over the past two decades.

“They’ve have employed RDOs [Regional Development Officers], YDOs [Youth Development Officers] going into schools that have never played rugby,” said the Dragons head coach.

“So little boys and girls who aren’t from a rugby areas are getting access to that because the IRFU and the government are paying for it.”

The suggestions that a traditionally elitist sport played by considerably less numbers than the GAA’s main codes or football has become “the people’s game” has certainly divided opinion.

Where do you stand on it?

Watch the full episode of last night’s Against The Head here

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Ben Blake

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