Comment: Top tier of semi-professionals would help to revitalise clubs
Despite its anticlimactic feel, yesterday's Guinness PRO12 closing round still managed to dominate the rugby landscape this weekend, to the extent that today's final of the Ulster Bank All-Ireland League, the season's biggest club game, is likely to have evaded the attention of all but the league's most committed followers and participants.
The IRFU's management of the club game, the union's fundamental purpose, its raison d'etre, is a challenge with which they have continuously struggled since the advent of professionalism. Formats, structures, and sponsors have come and gone on an irregular basis and further change is imminent. But the basic issue remains: participation rates at club level continue to fall, with many clubs fighting a losing battle to keep pace with the societal changes taking place in the wider world.
The club remains the fulcrum of our rugby community, yet its place within the wider landscape remains ill-defined and in need of urgent remedial action if the game is to be spared the eventual fate of American Football - a sport now played solely by schoolboys at one end and elite professionals at the other.
While the quality of play at AIL level remains high, away from the field of play clubs are being stretched, sometimes to breaking point. The bright lights of the professional game can dazzle even the most enlightened and well-intentioned volunteer.
The bone of contention currently, one I'm hearing from around the country, is one of the oldest issues in the game - pay-for-play.
Most of those closely concerned, at every level of the club game, know which clubs are willing to spend and what's on offer; on the other hand, there is a known cohort of 'available' players, some of them veterans who have already clocked in at maybe four or five clubs in the same province. For all involved, this is their busiest time of year. The months of April, May and June are effectively the game's transfer window.
For the uninitiated, despite payment to players by clubs or third parties associated with clubs being specifically forbidden, the practice is possibly more prevalent now than ever before. The sums reportedly on offer around the country are as big as, and maybe even bigger than, ever before and the packages available ever more imaginative.
The IRFU recently instigated a financial audit of an AIL Division One club, while one of the provincial branches has been formally investigating the workings of a junior club within its jurisdiction. We wait on both fronts to see if anything material will arise as a consequence of these exercises.
There is a valid argument that the top tiers of the club game should allow reward for players within the right structure - in fact to do so makes eminently good sense at this juncture. The prevalence, however, of these practices at the lower levels of senior competition and in the provincial junior leagues raises profound questions around the fundamental point of the entire exercise.
There will, from time to time, be cases where ambition and financial resources coincide and result in the development of a sustainable payment model within a club, but such instances are few and far between. All too often pay-for-play is the consequence of a decline in playing resources, the financial investment a last resort in a bid to stop the rot and stave off further decline. In either situation, however, the consequential damage to the wider game simply isn't given a second thought.
One tale doing the rounds this season is of a club whose post-match dressing-room after one particular away match was littered with more brown envelopes than muck. Instances such as these, anecdotal as they may be, do huge damage to the game and cultivate the impression of a wild-west free-for-all.
If committees have not got their heads around it just yet, the professional administrators running the game are clear in their minds that a top tier, or possibly two, of semi-professional rugby for fringe and aspiring pros is the only way forward, and will be to the ultimate advantage of both professional and amateur games.
Outside of that elite club level, a return to provincial or regional senior leagues is the most likely, maybe inevitable, route forward. Some will lament the loss of prestige and while the temptation will always remain for clubs with the wherewithal to compensate their players in one way or another, at least the major burdens inherent in fielding a team at national level, financial and otherwise, would be removed from the majority of senior clubs.
Such a move would serve to rekindle some long-established local rivalries too and, with targeted development from the IRFU where required, improve standards and possibly participation levels, across the provinces. While participation rates at provincial underage grades are holding up reasonably well, the throughput of these players to a vibrant and truly national club scene is another challenge to be faced.
For too long now the focus of administrators has been on the promotion and development of the professional franchises, with clubs receiving attention seemingly on a needs-must basis only,.
As the franchises flourish, however, clubs and their community of rugby people across the island could well be forgiven for thinking that they're little more than an afterthought in the minds of the game's administrators.
If matters are allowed drift much further, they'll be little more than a memory; change will be welcomed, but it must be radical and enforceable rather than tinkering and token.
Sunday Indo Sport