Hugh Farrelly: Hard to resist lure of crest and a scooter
WE realise that asking you to join our club presents certain difficulties, particularly regarding the distance you would have to travel, but we are prepared to make allowances for this if you agree to sign..."
After half an hour of semi-formal chit-chat, of tea being prepared and sipped (using milk out of a jug rather than a bottle to emphasise the importance of the discussions), we finally were getting to the bottom line. The offer.
It was the summer of 1990, the last few months before starting a new academic chapter at university, and now it was a question of where to play rugby.
The natural choice for students was to play with the college, surrounded by team-mates your own age and playing a brand of rugby that capitalised on youthful enthusiasm.
Nonetheless, that did not stop other senior clubs from sniffing around the latest batch of school graduates and there had been several 'meet and greet' social nights organised at different clubhouses, generally involving plenty of free beer and promises.
While those nights had been thoroughly enjoyed, there was never any danger of playing anywhere other than the university; not until a club official rang up and asked if he could call over for a more detailed conversation.
"We know that as well as travelling further to training, you would be missing out on the student rugby experience and playing with men a lot older than you, which we know can be a bit of an adjustment. That is why the club is prepared to offer you..."
"It's a proper, sturdy little scooter and we could get the club crest painted on the side."
"I can see this is a bit of a shock. Take your time..."
Rugby may have been amateur but inducements were widespread and, for a cash-strapped 18-year-old, the prospect of some financial reward to compensate for missing out on college rugby was undeniably enticing. A crested scooter? Not so much.
There were other strange offers being made around that time, like the player who was told he could have free pints after matches if he joined a particular club or another who was promised a favourable introduction to the president's (undeniably buxom) daughter.
There was cash doing the rounds also, but direct payments were generally reserved for higher-profile players or overseas signings -- such as the rumoured £400 a week (a fortune back then) paid to an All Black triallist who did more damage in the nightclubs than he ever did on the rugby pitch.
Aside from ancillary inducements and payments under the table, the usual practice was the use of the old-boys network to offer 'rugby jobs', habitually in the bank or insurance industries.
The tokenism of those positions can be soul destroying (coming out of college with an honours degree in marketing and management only to be assigned 'queue management' duties after taking a rugby job in a busy city centre bank was particularly harrowing).
Professionalism took the cash above the table and there was some crazy money flung at nickel and dime players in the late 1990s, incurring deep resentment in established team-mates who felt their gratis loyalty to the club was being exploited.
The clubs also tried the 'match fee' and 'win bonus' route -- a fairer system but an unsustainable one, given the paltry revenues in the All-Ireland League.
Now, there are suggestions that club rugby should be separated from the professional game and returned to its amateur status, where it will be pursued primarily as a social activity.
Meetings have been held and support has been gathered among those who want to address overpowering debts and give club rugby its sense of place back.
However, the assumption that clubs would no longer resort to inducements to attract and keep players is completely unrealistic.
Devotion to the cause all too often proves more powerful than financial pragmatism and there will always be one-upmanship and competitive edge between clubs, with market forces continuing to influence where players choose to tog out.
There is no going back, it is a question of finding the right, sustainable inducements.
Now, if it had been a scooter, a crest and the president's daughter...
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