Club scene must go back to the future
LAST Friday, Donnybrook hosted a very enjoyable club international, won 21-18 by Ireland thanks to an 84th-minute drop-goal from Darragh Fitzpatrick.
It was a back-to-basics reminder of old-fashioned 'guts-out' rugby with none of the fake razzmatazz that seems obligatory when professional 'brands' meet -- the disappointment was the attendance of around 800.
There were mutterings about a lack of marketing, but the fixture -- although not helped by departing sponsors AIB being less flaithiulach than usual -- was sufficiently flagged and you would have thought this was the perfect port of call for pumped-up fans the night before a big international.
However, the amateur game is obviously not sexy enough for the modern rugby fan and that is the issue as we try and plot a way forward for Irish club rugby.
Within the confines of club intransigence, the current 'A' and 'B' Division 1 system was a commendable attempt to re-invigorate a flagging competition with a more streamlined format (albeit with a ridiculous sop to the top-division concept which sees the winner of Division 1B qualifying for the play-offs). However, while clubs are fiercely protective of their 20-year-old national league, it is no longer sustainable in its existing format.
It has become abundantly clear that the professional and amateur games must be separated. Clubs must realise they can no longer field top (or even the second or third-tier) names, while the situation where internationals such as Marcus Horan (Shannon) and Rory Best (Banbridge) can work their way back up to fitness by lining out for their clubs against amateurs is extremely dangerous.
Clubs currently hold out for provincially contracted players to bolster their league efforts and results are often determined by who is least effected by withdrawals. The British & Irish Cup, involving the Munster, Leinster and Ulster 'A' sides, works around the club league but emphasises the problem.
Provincial coaches want their fringe players playing together under the same system with and against fellow professionals -- not going back to the AIL using different calls against amateur opponents.
Nor does it suit the contracted players. While publicly they will express devotion for their clubs, privately they acknowledge they would prefer just to be playing exclusively with fellow pros.
The solution is a rule where (as was the case with last Friday's club international) no contracted player is eligible to play club rugby and more 'A' games are brought in to ensure enough exposure for our professional contingent. With an increasing trend for players to go straight from school into professional academies, there would also need to be an equitable compensation system for clubs who produce players that are then embraced by the professional game.
The IRFU are currently conducting a widespread review into the future of the club game (delving deeper than just the often politically compromised club committees) with a decision to be taken by the end of 2010. The present system will be in place again next season but there should be change for 2011/12.
The logical step is a reversion back to the provincial leagues which would immediately reduce travel expenses with the added incentive of reinvigorating ancient rivalries gone dormant. Munster, Leinster and Ulster could operate two sections with the winners of each playing a provincial final to determine who qualifies for the national semi-finals while Connacht would have a single section and qualifying final. The National Cup could be retained to increase the opportunity of weaker clubs playing outside their province.
Agree or disagree, there is a way to influence the future as the IRFU survey 'Your Game, Your Say' on www.irishrugby.ie is being actively used to gain the widest canvas of opinions.
And it should be taken up. For the happy-clappy 'brandees' these deliberations may be of little consequence but devotees of the club game know something must be done.
It's time to go back to the future.
- Credit where it's due -- further to last week's column, Rockwell College rang PBC Cork to apologise for walking away during PBC's victory speech after the Cork school claimed the Munster Senior Schools Cup at Thomond Park on St Patrick's Day. The Rockwell coaches explained it was their decision to call their players to a meeting at the far end of the pitch and said it was in no way meant as an insult -- rather a "badly timed" attempt to console young players, many of whom had lost their second final in a row.