Wednesday 26 October 2016

Jim Glennon: Time for clubs to remind IRFU they are nothing without their heartbeat

Jim Glennon

Published 10/04/2016 | 17:00

'For over 20 years the club game has been little more than an afterthought for those in power.' Photo: Sportsfile
'For over 20 years the club game has been little more than an afterthought for those in power.' Photo: Sportsfile

With three of the four provinces idle this weekend, it is a pity that the All-Ireland League missed a potential rare moment in the sun.

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I've written before of the challenges faced by clubs and their players and how their plight hasn't been helped by the IRFU. Countless measures have been introduced to, and withdrawn from, the League over the years, to the extent that little would surprise any longer.

The end of season play-off series in the top division, for example, has been introduced and subsequently withdrawn on more than one occasion, while for a time semi-finals and finals were part of the lower divisions too.

Pay-for-play came, and supposedly went, but anyone with their ear to the ground has little doubt that the practice is alive and kicking.

We've had three divisions and four prior to the introduction of the five-tier model this season, bringing with it instead of the more orthodox promotion/relegation play-offs, with second from bottom in the higher league playing second from top in the lower league to decide the ultimate order, a play-off series with second from bottom competing with teams placed second to fourth in the lower division in what amounts to a semi-final and final, for a position in the higher division.

If the new structure's merits aren't immediately obvious, the IRFU's persistent difficulty in dealing with their clubs' role in the game nationally, and how best to structure their competitions, certainly is. Ironic when one reflects on the fact that the 'U' in IRFU stands for the union of clubs, rather than for the game of 'rugby union'. Ultimately, and to the detriment of all, it's the clubs themselves who are unable to agree on how best to organise their own activities.

The professional game monopolises the vast bulk of media and public interest, and this will always be the case. There are still a lot of people, however, who prefer to watch a match involving their local club, played by local players.

We're now at the business end of the first season of the league's five-division structure. A view shared by many directly involved, and one to which I subscribe, is that this five-tier, 50-team league is bloated and has undermined the prestige of the competition. There is implicit acknowledgement of this on the part of the IRFU in its branding of tiers 3-5 as Divisions 2A, 2B, and 2C - Division 5 just doesn't have the same ring to it as Division 2C.

In recent years, economic challenges faced by rural Ireland and our regional towns and cities have been reflected in the relative strength of the clubs nationally, and the composition of the different tiers.

This season's Division 1A is evenly divided between five Dublin clubs and five non-Dublin - two from Limerick, and one from Cork, with Galwegians and Ballynahinch the Connacht and Ulster representatives respectively. That split could possibly be as high as seven-three next season, depending on results over the next few weeks.

At the other end of the spectrum, Division 2C is dominated by towns rather than city clubs and currently comprises five clubs from Leinster and four from Munster, with Sligo flying the Connacht flag. The Leinster representation next season could be as high as seven, depending on how matters play out.

With the majority of this lower-ranking Leinster cohort having gained senior status in the last decade or so, the AIL's expansion has effectively resulted in little more than a gradual promotion of Leinster's top junior clubs to senior status, the benefits of which for the clubs, and the game in general, are highly questionable.

If the IRFU seem unsure just what role the clubs and the league should fulfil in the game's development, there's little doubt about their constant uncertainty regarding competition structure.

The attempted banning of pay-for-play, while an admirable move, demonstrated more than a hint of naivete. If clubs, or individuals within them, wish to pay players, they won't need the support of a Panamanian law firm to help them carry if off. The practice is impossible to completely eradicate.

Another uncomfortable fact is the continuing fall of the average age of players, which is a major issue, particularly for the smaller clubs. The demands of trying to balance family life, work and training means a fall-off in participation is inevitable. It's vital for the future viability of the club game that players' continued participation be facilitated as far as possible. The rumoured return to provincial structures for the Division 2 clubs would be a step in the right direction. There's nothing more fundamental to the development of the game than increasing the numbers playing, or at least minimising the numbers falling away.

For over 20 years the club game has been little more than an afterthought for those in power.

Those at the heart of the club game on this island, and particularly the club, are the game. Without them there is nothing. The clubs would do well to remember that it is they who appoint those who run rugby in Ireland, a timely reflection in the context of the upcoming AGM season.

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