“I grew up in the rugby club. Running around the bar, running around the pitches, just being there. It was always part of our life growing up.”

IRFU Chief Executive, Kevin Potts, and IRFU Director of Communications, Aoife Clarke, at Aviva Stadium. Image: IRFU

Aoife Clarke recently took up her role as the new IRFU Director of Communications. In this interview she speaks about her career with Lidl Ireland and what she wants to achieve.

Aoife and I sat a few metres away from each other, at a communal table somewhere in the upper levels of the IRFU offices at their High-Performance Facility in Abbotstown. She was one day away from completing her third week of what she described as “the dream job”.

Surprisingly Aoife didn’t come from a rugby family. It was her father who harboured her love she now has for the game.

“My dad. I don’t think his family were a rugby family, just growing up he was the sort of build that was suited to rugby. He played rugby from a very young age up until the age of 50. None of his brothers would have played rugby or been into it, so he was very much an outlier in the family.

“I grew up in the Ashbourne rugby club. Running around the bar, running around the pitches, just being there. It was always part of our life growing up. Even though my mum had no interest in it, I think she just wanted to get rid of us”.

The interaction Aoife had with sport during her youth was extensive. But it’s difficult for her to separate the enjoyment from the regret.

“I played Gaa in primary school. I did athletics as well. I did basketball. I was always at the side of our house just with a tennis racket banging a ball off the side of the house. So, I had a real interest in sport, there was no girls rugby. That came later. Both my parents would have really encouraged it and brought me here, there and everywhere.

“I think as I got older, around junior cert, it started to fall off as I was starting to focus on the future and study. That’s something I regret. I stepped away from a lot of sports then and I wish I had stayed in for those couple of years”.

In the summer of July 2021, former Cork Camogie player Anna Geary presented a two – part documentary for RTE called ‘Why Girls Quit Sport’. The title was simplistic and straightforward, but the statistics around the ‘drop off’ in female sport was frightening. By the time young women have reached their teenage years, 50% have stopped playing sport. Beyond enjoying taking part, thriving in competition or expanding a social circle, this creates challenges around schoolgirls reaching daily recommended activity levels.

Culturally, there might be a sense that this sudden and sizable drop off is inexplicable. Aoife makes the point that it’s actually quite rational.

“A lot of it comes down to body image and peer group. A lot of girls maybe say, ‘I have to start thinking about my leaving cert, so I have to stay at home and study’. Research actually shows that people who stay in sport and have that outlet do perform better overall and have improved levels of concentration”.

Brutality of Retail

One of the most competitive sectors in Irish business is supermarkets. The brutality of it hides in plain sight. Retail conglomerates like Aldi, Lidl, Tesco and Dunnes taking each other on and declaring price wars in live television adverts. Aoife spent 10 years as communications director for Lidl Ireland. Is it really as ruthless as it seems?

“Yeh, it’s so cutthroat. It’s probably one of the most competitive industries… There’s such an incredible level of attention and focus that goes into price checking, it’s actually scary”.

Aldi and Lidl are now part of the Irish supermarket hierarchy. It wasn’t always the case. In 2000 Lidl arrived in the Irish market as an outsider. It opened 7 stores. Irish consumers were generally loyal to their supermarket of choice. In a market dominated by national institutions like Dunnes and Supervalu, it was a difficult environment for a foreign outsider to establish itself. Then the crash hit.

“The recession definitely helped that. It turned the attention. Suddenly people were questioning, ‘do I really have to buy a brand’? Irish people are incredibly brand loyal, less so then they were years ago. People have become a lot more questioning, and maybe, I would say, smarter. I think people have just become more savvy”.

During the pandemic, the grocery business had a unique status. For obvious reasons it was deemed as essential and outlets were allowed to remain open, during the strictest Lockdowns. It might be insensitive to say that the pandemic was good for business, but it certainly wasn’t bad. 

“We would have seen sales of premium steaks going up, alcohol going up. It was good for business. But I think it was also incredibly stressful for people who were in there.”

World Number One

Ireland is the number one ranked rugby team in the world. That’s the aim, but it can be a pressure inducing title. On the whole Joe Schmidt’s legacy is positive. During his tenure, Ireland hit milestones which at the end of the Declan Kidney era would have been unthinkable. Having won a Grand Slam in 2018 and set a high level of expectancy, Ireland’s 2019 World Cup performance was underwhelming, bordering on unacceptable. Heading into the 2023 World Cup the levels of expectancy are even higher, and there’s an obvious sense of awareness about that.

Regardless of whether or not Ireland wins this World Cup, what this class of Irish players have achieved has been remarkable. The point that respected former Ireland International Donal Lenihan makes, that for the first-time rugby is reaching into corners of the country which it hasn’t done before, is broadly true. But in a sporting environment like Ireland, where the Gaa has is indomitable, and football is so globally accessible, Rugby continues to battle with its perception issue. IRFU partner Vodafone calls Ireland ‘The Team of Us’. Ireland’s starting 15 for their last game of this year’s Six Nations game consisted of; 10 Leinster players, 4 players who are eligible through residency rules, and Peter O’ Mahony. 

“I think that is one of the great challenges. It’s perceived as being very Dublin centric, because of the private schools and the model that’s there. There is a very healthy, competitive competition for the senior school’s cup. But the numbers are increasing of people who play rugby, we can see that through our own registrations. Kids rugby is booming massively”.

“You need to have figures like Sean O’ Brien and Tadhg Furlong. We want to find those people out there…. It is about increasing the competitiveness in other areas of rugby to try and get those through. But it’s amazing when you have somebody like that.

“I would have seen it with Sean O’ Brien, the cult hero that you become in your local town. It’s amazing for kids to see that. They remain so accessible and down to earth, and they do everything in their local community”.

“I think in the Women’s game you’ll have more of them because they don’t have the same structure so they are playing in more local communities. So, I think you’ll start to see some really strong female role models come out in rugby over the next while”.

The 2000’s were a formative period in Aoife’s life. As a student she spent two years in Boston, in the latter days of the Bush presidency. She remembered that the state of Massachusetts, home of the Kennedy dynasty, was “completely blue”. But as a 19-year-old Irish student, Aoife might have felt that her inability to purchase alcohol “legally” was somewhat conservative. Her experience of American sport was absorbing.

“We were a ten-minute walk from Fenway Park where the Red Soxs play. The first week we were there, me and one of the guys on the course went over and they always have a few tickets they you can queue up for. 

“I think we queued for like five hours to get into the game, and we stood for four hours watching the game, because they were only standing tickets. Only when it got to one of the last innings, people got up and left and we sat down”.

As an outsider, American sport seems like an alien commodity in comparison to Irish sport. The contrast between the biggest sporting occasions in America and Ireland and how they are marketed as entertainment events is one thing. This year, in an NBA match against Oklahoma LeBron James overtook Kareem Abudul – Jabbar as the league’s all – time leading scorer, a record he set in 1984. At that crucial moment, the game was paused, James’ family came down to the court, and the moment was celebrated in images and video that went globally viral. In this year’s All – Ireland hurling championship, Cork’s Patrick Horgan became the highest scorer of all time. A game later, TJ Reid overtook him. Apart from Ger canning on commentary casually pointing it out, few fans would even be aware history is unfolding in front of their eyes. Sport can be a culturally different experience.

“It definitely is. You see it with the Superbowl, ‘who’s doing the halftime show’? Sometimes I don’t even know who’s playing in the Superbowl, but I know who’s doing the halftime show. It’s a different market, the Americans are maybe a bit more entertainment focused. 

“You know, maybe we need a few more things like that to get some more people who wouldn’t be interested in certain sports. But it’s definitely a very different experience.”