Rugby in Ireland: A Sport for the Elite or the Masses?

With all the talk recently of Leinster’s unfair advantages in terms of their squad, it seemed a good time to take a look at whether Rugby is still a posh game dominated by private schools.

Rugby has long been associated with the upper classes in Ireland, but is this stereotype still accurate? In 2017 the Irish Times looked at ‘The role fee-paying schools in Irish rugby’ by looking at the last 100 players to be capped by Ireland. Specifically this dealt with the period from 2005 to the Autumn International fixture with Canada in November 2016. Arguably this was a period of equal dominance for Leinster, winning three Heineken Cups, a Challenge Cup & three league titles. So if their current period of success is all about the private school ‘Leinster Rugby Factory’ then the results should show the same.

Interestingly, of the 100 players in the study, 46 attended fee paying schools, 36 non fee paying schools with 18 educated overseas. Whilst a clear majority attended fee paying schools it would be a bit of a stretch to call it domination. Indeed, when they looked at the individual schools, a non fee paying school, St. Munchins Limerick, had provided more players to the international team than any other. So how does this compare with the present day?

Professional Irish rugby players who went to private, fee-paying schools

For the purposes of this article I’ve based these figures on the provincial squads as published by the respective regions as of 8/04/23. If the numbers aren’t clear from the image, the breakdown was 187 players across all provincial squads with 90 attending fee paying schools in Ireland, 53 non fee paying and 44 were educated overseas.

As mentioned in the image above, I’m working on the basis that those who played on a Senior Cup team (Ireland’s foremost schools competition) for a fee paying school then they are included as having attended a fee paying school. There are cases throughout the provinces where this can be debated. Did Joey Carbery learn more of his rugby in his 11 years in New Zealand, subsequent years in Athy RFC or the single year he won the Senior Cup with Blackrock College? Similar can be said for Tadhg Beirne, Tiernan O’Halloran & many others.

Which of the Irish Rugby provinces has the poshest squad?

Somewhat predictably, Leinster romps home in this category! It would also be unfair not to highlight the fact that the ‘Leinster rugby factory’ also accounts for around 5% of the other provinces totals.

What are the top 10 Irish rugby schools?

Almost anyone with a passing interest might have suggested Blackrock College would have topped this pole, whilst a bit damming for the socialists amongst us, it is tribute to the institution that they have 19 former students across the Irish provincial squads. Interesting to note that these players are spread throughout the provinces, questioning the theory that the Leinster rugby factory’ is the root cause of their current dominance.

For the socialists among us, it’s also worthy to note that three of the above are non fee paying schools, Ardscoil Rís, Ballymena Academy & St Munchin’s. If combined they would sit second in the table after Blackrock.

What does the rest of the country have to do to compete with these schools? My suggestion would be very little, we should embrace the success of these schools and be thankful we have them. Safe in the knowledge that barely 6 years ago a similar table was topped by non fee paying St Munchin’s.

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