Touch in Ireland on the verge of expansion

April 13, 2021 @ 8:45 UTC

An alliance with Irish Rugby, a strong showing at the World Cup in 2019 and a growing talent pool, has Touch in Ireland set for post-pandemic growth.

With its close association to Irish Rugby and a growing talent pool, Touch in Ireland is on the verge of a post-pandemic growth spurt. This is fantastic news for the Irish Touch community, which is celebrating 15 years of game time in 2021. 

The pioneers of Touch

Aidan Sweeney was there at Touch’s start in Ireland in 2006 and is now President of the Irish Touch Association (ITA). “It was a very amateur sort of thing set up by a bunch of old fellas who had retired from rugby looking for something else to do.” 

From those humble beginnings, the sport has grown to such an extent that five teams represented Ireland at the 2019 World Cup in Malaysia. Aidan and ITA board members Michelle Mulcahy and Aisling McCaffrey joined Adam Collins for a recent ‘Set of 6’ to discuss Touch in the Emerald Isle. 

Non-contact an advantage in Covid-19 times

The island of Ireland has experienced a tragic 7000 Covid-19 deaths with tens of thousands of infections, along with lengthy lockdowns and a cessation of team sports. As some restrictions start to ease, the ITA has found itself potentially ahead of other sports in being able to restart play. “Through a partnership with the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), we got ourselves classified as a non-contact sport which is allowed under various restrictions to be played. It means we can get on to the pitch long before anyone else,” said Aidan Sweeney.

 School interest in Touch growing

The official classification of Touch as a non-contact sport was made by Sport Ireland, the peak sports body in Ireland. This has opened doors for the ITA in terms of gaining access for Touch in schools. Schools are looking for sports that can be played by girls and boys together that are non-contact. The ITA has responded to this interest from schools and conducted webinars to introduce Touch to school sports teachers and development officers. “Ironically the pandemic is a large stepping stone in expanding our base," said Aidan.

Touch Ireland seizes the opportunity for rapid expansion

The ITA is currently targeting a significant increase in the number of clubs and players. According to Aidan, “We only have about a dozen official clubs, but we have had applications to triple that number in the next few weeks, so we have to latch on to that.” 

The IRFU will partner with the ITA in this expansion. It has identified Touch as a non-contact sport its members can play whilst full-contact sport is not possible. Chair of the ITA board Michelle Mulcahy said, “The fact that everything is non-contact and will be for the next while is advantageous to us. It’s the visibility from the IRFU, they have the platform.” 

The ITA has developed a strong relationship with the IRFU. Billy Ngawini from the ITA has been facilitating webinars about Touch directly for the IRFU. The topics for the most recent webinars have been ‘How to run a Touch competition within your club’ and ‘An introduction to coaching Touch’. The close partnership with Irish rugby has developed over the last two years. “The ITA has been quite active in nurturing that relationship, and the IRFU are now seeing the opportunity as well. It’s a symbiotic relationship,” said Michelle Mulcahy. 

ITA fostering greater female participation

Irish Touch representative and ITA board-member Aisling McCaffrey has a particular interest in seeing more women playing Touch. Ireland did not send a Women’s Open team to the last World Cup, and Aisling wants to change that. “Probably one of the key things was a real push on the development of our Women’s Open. We have a huge amount of talented female players, and I think the World Cup was the catalyst to focus on that.” 

Irish Touch is smiling

Touch in Ireland appears to be on the verge of a boom. The ITA has cleverly leveraged its relationship with rugby to potentially increase participant numbers rapidly in schools and clubs. There is a nice generational balance in the ITA leadership, which respects the work of the pioneers and looks to the future. Not that the original Touch players are fading away. Many who were in the vanguard of Touch in Ireland are still playing, according to Aidan Sweeney. That is one of the many brilliant attributes of Touch. There are no age limits.