Rugby tries to shake off ‘elitist’ tag in sports-mad Liberties

The rugby pitch on the TU Dublin campus in Grangegorman. Photo credit, Anna Brennock

Rugby is basically an unforgiving, skillful and physically tough sport in which 15 players per team pass an oval-shaped ball to each other, fighting and putting their bodies on the line, all for that golden moment where they can place the ball over their opponents white-washed try line. And it has got itself a small but important foothold in Dublin’s inner city.

Many people would say rugby is a game for the “posh” and is dominated by boys and young men from a small number of private schools. However, as the years have ticked by, rugby has been changing these stereotypes and huge efforts are being made to involve people from other backgrounds. A solid example of how rugby is changing is the Liberty Saints rugby club, founded by Graham Jones in 2008.

The Liberty Saints is a flourishing rugby club based in the Liberties. In this football-crazed community, the growing club has given the opportunity to people living in the area a chance to experience what rugby is all about.

When Jones funded the club, he wanted to use rugby as a way to get local kids engaged in positive group activity, and to stay off the streets, and away from trouble, according to an article in the Irish Times.

Barry Holmes is now the head coach to roughly 50 children at the club, who use the green behind St James’ Primary School in James’ Walk as a training ground for the children.

“Our aim as a club is to bring rugby into a community that really hasn’t ever had rugby before, and to allow our people reap the benefits of what you get from being part of a rugby club,” he says. “It started out over ten years ago and has really grown in the last few years. Our ultimate goal is to get a bit of green land in the area to use, and just really grow as a club,” Holmes told The Liberty.

Holmes says the only reason they have somewhere to train at all is because they have a good relationship with a local school, which allows them use the school’s green space. This area is no bigger than two tennis courts, and while they are grateful to the school, the lack of a proper pitch is a source of frustration.

“The number of kids we have in our club just shows the rate at which we are growing,” he says. “We used to all train together, but because of the numbers we have to split them into two groups for trainings. We have the younger group kicking off at 10am and the older group at a quarter past 11 on a Sunday morning.”

He says people should not dismiss rugby as an elitist sport. “There’s a perception in the sporting world that rugby is full of elitism, and you can see where that comes from. The elite schools who get all the coverage when it comes around the senior cups and the junior cups. But what we’re interested in is just athletes.”

This is off-putting in some communities he added. “There’s a serious number of athletes in the area that don’t believe that they have the capability to do it because they have this fixed perception that there is an elitism to it. Rugby is a sport that wouldn’t usually be associated with this area, but more and more people are turning up every Sunday and it’s growing.”

The Liberty Saints have been talking to schools, and recruiting players, particularly younger ones. “Our main aim is to recruit under-eights because you have to get them young – we just grew from there.”

Sarah Fallon, the women’s rugby director for St Mary’s College RFC, says: “If you are living in inner city areas such as The Liberties, it can be really hard to find a rugby club to play for. I think that it’s really good to see that clubs such as the Liberty Saints are working in areas that wouldn’t necessarily be rugby orientated”.

Sarah Fallon herself is proof that the posh boy stereotype is not always fair. She started playing minis in St Mary’s but began her senior career playing with Guinness RFC in Crumlin as well as spending six years playing in Tipperary.

Fallon says that Leinster Rugby runs some programmes in the inner city now. “But it would be great to see more opportunities being given to this large cohort of children and young adults. For example, Tallaght Rugby Club had a great brand campaign ‘rugby is not just D4 it’s D24 too’. Although rugby can be viewed as an elitist sport, this is not a fair reflection of the game now.

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