IRFU miss the point as they foist another crock on clubs
New system militates against players being the best that they can be
Four seasons ago, Joe Schmidt took himself off to an AIL game one Saturday on the advice that there was a hooker on view who might have something to offer Leinster. It was good info, for when the final whistle went the coach had already made up his mind to sign a new number two.
As it happened, the hooker he recruited, Aaron Dundon, was playing opposite the man Schmidt had gone to watch, but that's neither here nor there. The point is that he liked what he saw, and Dundon - who was playing for Clontarf having moved there from Seapoint, who were a junior club at the time - was below the radar. It was good business all round.
There are lots of examples of the Ulster Bank League providing a springboard for players to get into the professional game, despite the efforts of the IRFU to make the competition irrelevant to the tier above it. In the last year, for example, Lansdowne have sent Craig Ronaldson, Clive Ross and Charlie Butterworth into the pro game on the back of their league form.
The chances of this trend continuing, however, will be slashed thanks to an IRFU plan which you'd be slow to call an initiative. Starting next season clubs must nominate a squad of between 45 and 50 players, each with a charted history of who they are and where they have come from. A points rating will attach to each player, and the total must not exceed 100. So, if you have been raised through that club since you were a nipper, then you'll have a minimum rating of one point; if on the other hand you have just joined from another club, or if you're a representative player coming from a school and have no previous connection with the club, you'll score an uncomfortable four.
Welcome to the PPS (Player Points System). Its stated aim is to restrict player movement between clubs and to promote loyalty. In fact, it is legislating for loyalty, which is an entirely different thing.
According to Scott Walker, the IRFU's director of development and the club game (you'd have thought they were one and the same), it arrives here on the back of similar operations in other sports, in other jurisdictions, and is coming in after lengthy consultation with rugby clubs around the country.
In keeping with the union's cack-handed history in managing the club game here, however, it's a crock. It militates against players being the best they can be, and contradicts the union's pathway that purports to light the way 'from Six to Six Nations', as they label the journey themselves.
Why saddle us with this? Because player movement in Munster has been like rush hour in Grand Central Station, that's why. A staggering 590 bodies have been shifted around, and in and out, over the last two seasons in that province, Walker says. He suspects that cash inducements have been involved in a good number of these transfers.
He's probably right. In the teeth of a recession it's a hard offer to turn down. Equally, if you're moving from say Limerick to Dublin on the basis that the latter has more jobs than the former, that too is a no-brainer. Of course there is an appeals mechanism proposed, for those moving more than 100km but clubs will be required to provide "appropriate evidence (including evidence of residence and employment."
Where Walker is wrong is in thinking the IRFU can provide a sporting solution to an economic problem. And where he is a mile off is in thinking that the Aaron Dundons of the world won't be hindered in their progress, for where previously they were free agents, now they'll have an unwanted price on their heads.
So if the Dundons are out of the picture then where will clubs focus next? Well, that's easy: under 20s and below. This will start an even more frenzied charge to sign players before they leave school, so that they will come in through the gate with a minimum points rating. And inducements will be used to do just that.
Of course they could just grow their own, couldn't they? Well, they could if the crop of minis didn't overnight become the property of the schools when they fetch up to first year. Try keeping a grip on some of those as they get caught up in the industry that is the schools game and see how you get on. If the union were serious about addressing the issue of club loyalty they would have done so long since. But they aren't.
Rather they faff about catering for the disenfranchised with rules and regulations that are like a handbrake on those who want to get ahead. Between the introduction this season of regulation six to take cash out of the game, and now the PPS to limit player movement, the aim evidently is to widen further the gap between the professional tier and the clubs below it. Yet with stunning hypocrisy they allow a highway for AIL players into the pro bowl when the big fish are running low on stocks, yet seek to limit the freedom of movement within the club game itself.
It is ironic that this is happening at exactly the moment Leinster's Matt O'Connor is dipping into the club pool for resources to cover himself during the Six Nations and World Cup. Well, no actually, it's not ironic - it's just plain stupid.
And before you can say 'Oops, there's another cock-up we've made in the club game', the Joe Schmidts and Matt O'Connors of the world will be facing a dilemma. Their academies at peak times like Six Nations and World Cups will be unable to feed the demand, so they'll reach down to the much-abused and woefully-administered club game. And they'll find a great big hole where all the late developers used to be.
Sunday Indo Sport