THERE’S A SIGNIFICANT event on the tag rugby calendar taking place in Dublin this weekend.
Ireland are hosting a Tri Nations tournament in St Mary’s, Templeogue, and go head-to-head with Australia and Great Britain for pride, glory and silverware.
Proceedings kicked off yesterday morning, and they continue today with things going swimmingly for the Ireland camp so far.
Competing in five categories, Ireland have a total of 17 wins and two draws out of 24 Test matches under their belts. The men and mixed senior sides have won all of their games, and they each have one more later today.
The mixed open team have won three, drawn one, lost one and have one Test to play. The ladies open side have won two and lost three, while the ladies senior team have won two Tests, drawn one and lost one.
Overall, it’s looking like Ireland will come out on top.
Not bad, considering the fact that Australia are considered the top side in the world.
The ground-breaking progress that’s been made across the board in the sport, and national set-up, over the last few years in Ireland can’t be ignored.
And Barry Keary, the Team Ireland Manager, has witnessed these changes first-hand since his first involvement in 2014.
2015 saw Ireland compete in their first World Cup in Australia.
Everything was new, they went into it quite naively. Of course there was some success, but it was taken as more of a learning curve.
“Australia have won pretty much all of the World Cups in most of the categories that are competed in, the four times that it’s been held,” he explains to The42. “The next strongest would be New Zealand.
“At World Cup level you’d come up against players who’ve played rugby league at a very high level. For example, our men’s team would have played players who have played for New Zealand in the rugby league World Cup final in the last tag World Cup.
“The standard is very very high. We’ve improved a lot though.”
The next World Cup is pencilled in for November 2018. It was meant to be in New Zealand, but a problem with the proposed funding means it’s back in Australia.
It’s well over 12 months away, but is something that never leaves Keary’s mind.
“The big thing is banking the lessons we learned the first time around. What worked and what didn’t, what risks we should take and what risks we shouldn’t, and what preparation we should put into it.
“We’re far better prepared at this point in the cycle than we were the last time. The last time we didn’t really know what to expect. Whereas this time we know what’s required so we’ve geared everything around it.”
As well as this weekend’s Tri Nation tournament, September brings another invaluable piece of preparation, and another important event on the tag rugby calendar — the British and Irish Cup.
Keary recalls that it’s been held three times, and that Ireland have won it three times.
“Britain have been getting closer, slowly but surely,” he smiles. “There very much would be a big rivalry between the two sides.”
At the minute though, their British and Irish Cup defence in September, let alone next year’s World Cup, feels like worlds away.
All focus is on today, on the present, and on coming out on top at the Tri Nations.
Although it is not a full-strength touring side from Australia, it’s still a huge achievement for Ireland to be leading the way entering day two of the action.
“We are doing really well. Overall, we are going to win, I think at this point.
“Australia have to finance the travel to the other side of the world, so not everyone can go. The British have all their top players though.”
“It is tough because even in Australia, in terms of numbers, they have well over 100,000 players, Britain is just under 10,000 and we would be just under 15,000.”
In terms of changes and progress over the past few years, one springs to mind immediately when Keary is asked — selection for the national side.
Players compete with their clubs and then through regions, there is a selection process to see who’ll don the green jersey each year.
“Things that would have worked to get you onto the team four years ago wouldn’t work now,” Keary continues.
“Standards are higher and it’s getting tougher. It’s still a little bit too easy because we’re new and a growing sport, but it’s getting harder and harder.
“People that would have been selected a number of years ago wouldn’t get selected today.”
Another thing that he’s seen evolve is the training load: “It’s maybe not as intense as other sports just yet, but that’s slowly changing over time again as standards improve”.
Keary, who runs two teams in the mixed Premiership — Broadlake Exiles and KPMG Barbarians — speaks of how crossover from other sports and disciplines has shaped and moulded the Ireland teams over the years.
“A lot of the players have excelled in other fields, which would be different to what people would expect because they kind of associate the sport with the social side of it as opposed to the more serious side of it.”
“Mostly it would be club and junior rugby on the guy’s side, and then on the girls side it would be some rugby, some Sevens, some hockey and a lot of Gaelic at the top level.
“There’d be some girls that would have played county in the past or currently play county, who are playing for the national side.”
Claire Bergin comes from an athletics background though.
Bergin has represented Ireland twice at the Olympics — once at the summer Games in London 2012, and previously at the winter Games in Vancouver 2010. Bobsleigh and 4x400m relay.
And now she finds herself with a life centred on tag rugby.
After London, the Dubliner took a step back from athletics and went in search of something new. She took a brief diversion through Sevens with the Irish development squad, but then she found tag.
“I was looking to do something else I suppose,” she tells The42. “I had finished with athletics and wanted a different challenge.
“I played sevens with the Irish development squad for about a year. That opportunity came up so I did that for a bit but I really didn’t like the contact. It wasn’t for me.
“Then one of my good friends [who played tag] — they were short girls for a match and asked if I’d come out and play. I did and I loved it!
“I had played a little bit of tag different summers with my brothers and friends, nothing competitive though. It was a nice addition to have a fast girl on the team! I didn’t have any particular skills, just carry the ball to the line and score tries.”
In one way, it all started as a way to ease Bergin off crazy training loads and competitive sport, but she laughs that she’s still doing just as much.
“I wanted take a step back from the intensity of athletics and that high level of sport. I was used to training every day and doing stuff every day, so I’ve ended up replacing that with tag.
“I play tag every day, pretty much. That’s my life… It’s like I go to work and play tag.
“In the summer, you’d be playing four or five matches during the week, and then a small bit of club training, and Irish training then — Test matches, full weekends or full days training, and then sometimes blitzes over the weekend.
“It can be fairly time consuming but it’s kind of flexible, as much as you want to do it if that makes sense. There’s not a huge commitment, the way it would have been, for me anyway with athletics.
“It’s an amateur sport, it’s all self-funded and that so there’s not that huge pressure to be training all the time.”
The Irish Tag Rugby Association (ITRA) and the sport of tag rugby itself is one that prides itself on their 50:50 male-to-female ratio, and it’s something Bergin welcomes.
“It’s brilliant. I really like that with the sport. We are considered equals, for the most part,” she grins.
“Well, the girls tries are worth more than the guy’s tries. But still.
“It’s kind of a unique sport in that sense that you get to play on the pitch together.
“Starting, I learned from the guys because I didn’t come from a rugby background or anything like that. It is great that you can play on the same field together.”
Like Keary, the 2018 World Cup is on her mind, but kept firmly to the back.
When it’s brought up in conversation, she quickly brings herself back down to earth with a gentle reminder that there’s a lot to play for before then.
“That’s the longer term plan, but we have to focus on this weekend and September first.
“Then there’ll be a lot of training and improvements to make ahead of November 2018, preparing for the World Cup.”
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