Investment in grassroots rugby plays an integral role in future World Cup success, it has been claimed this week.
As Ireland hope to continue their blistering start to their 2023 World Cup campaign with a heavyweight clash against South Africa in Paris on Saturday night, former British and Irish Lion Stephen Ferris visited Bangor Rugby Club in Northern Ireland in a celebration of The National Lottery’s game-changing support for grassroots rugby.
For Ferris, grassroots rugby clubs have a special meaning, especially as he started his career at the Portadown youth system. Bangor is one of 50 local clubs governed by Ulster Rugby, which has received around £605,000 of National Lottery funding in the past two years, which has gone towards numerous participation programmes.
Ulster Rugby has nurtured many rugby stars in Northern Ireland, including iconic rugby players, such as Tommy Bowe, Rory Best, and Iain Henderson among many others.
Current Ireland centre Stuart McCloskey is among the players to have come through the ranks at Bangor, but additional funding is crucial to the upkeep of the club’s talent factory, according to Ulster’s head of rugby development, Chris Webster.
“The funding we’ve received through The National Lottery has played a huge role in supporting staff, who in turn support clubs to deliver all their rugby activity,” said Webster.
“The women and girls’ game are our biggest growth area. The number of players both within clubs and schools at adult and youth level has sky rocketed.
“So, the investment from The National Lottery has allowed us to invest in a couple of key strategic posts to help us develop, and without it, we wouldn’t be able to run some of the programmes we have, or to react to the changing needs amongst our players.
“But we also recognise that the majority of rugby within Ulster is delivered by volunteers and without volunteers and the funding provided to support them, we couldn’t provide the playing opportunities we currently do.”
Ferris’ visit could not be timelier as World Cup fever sweeps across the nation, with the world’s number one side gunning for their maiden tournament triumph. He was able to see first-hand the impact funding can have on clubs like Bangor RFC – clubs which nurtured the Irish team and paved their way to success – and record a special good luck message and meet some of the club’s players.
Each Irish Rugby squad release places the details of every player’s club and province next to their name, and Webster believes that serves as a reminder of the role grassroots rugby plays in shaping future internationals.
“Grassroots rugby is the most important aspect of the professional game because it is the long-term lifeblood of rugby within Ulster,” he said.
“Stuart’s first involvement came through mini rugby at Bangor, that was all volunteer-led and without that opportunity, Stuart wouldn’t be in the position he’s in now.”
And Ferris’ visit did more than just whet the appetite ahead of one of the most eagerly awaited games in the history of Irish rugby.
“Accessibility is very important,” added Webster. “The chance for young people, and even some of the adults, to meet their heroes is really important and that creates a sense of connection and pride about rugby in Ulster.
“That’s one of the unique aspects of rugby within Ulster – we’ve got a very clear pathway and connection between the grassroots and professional game.
“There’s no doubt that the further Ireland progresses within the tournament, the more positive it is for us. To win the World Cup would be amazing.”
Bangor Rugby Club is amongst the thousands of grassroots rugby projects throughout the UK benefiting from the £30 million raised by National Lottery players every week for good causes.