Tony Ward: More Joey Carberys are out there waiting to be found
Major surgery is required to revamp Ireland’s club competitions and make them a proper pathway to pro ranks for emerging talent
A rising tide lifts all boats - or so the aphorism goes. Such might be the case from time to time in economic language but certainly not where rugby is concerned and most definitely not in club terms.
The fact that it is a global problem on the back of professionalism is no consolation as, in reality, a lowering tide is moving closer to drowning all boats at club level. Almost every year without fail the incoming president of the IRFU - an honorary position, I might add - puts an emphasis on the club game and puts its revitalisation at the top of the agenda in his maiden address.
I have no doubt that to a man it is well-intentioned but needless to say it gets lost along the way as presidential demands take control. So I think it fair to say that on the day each successive president takes office and on the biggest date (metaphorically speaking) of the club year (tomorrow in the Aviva), club rugby and specifically the Ulster Bank All-Ireland League gets its few hours in the sun.
Credit the IRFU at least for allowing Clontarf and Cork Con the space not to clash directly with the final round of the Guinness Pro12 and specifically the two inter-provincial derbies in Belfast and Limerick.
Parallel If memory serves me right, I was in the Kingspan on the corresponding day for the corresponding fixture last year when the Joey Carbery 'Tarf/Con final was running almost parallel in Dublin. At least that anomaly has been addressed and the club elite - many with professional aspirations - get the opportunity to strut their stuff on the biggest stage of all for club players just like Carbery did last year.
Again, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of club rugby to professional progress. Given my own involvement in the schools' game, I'm fairly au fait with the screening process whereby underage talent, whether youth (club) or schoolboy, is being identified at a much younger age.
This is good in some ways but on balance it's a double-edged sword. How many players slip through the system on the basis of not fully maturing until they are 19 or 20 and in some cases even later still?
Brian O'Driscoll was a promising schoolboy and represented both Leinster and Ireland in his time at Blackrock but it was only upon moving to UCD that his real talent - which was then fully recognisable - began to emerge. There have been countless similar cases over the years. In my own underage schools group in St Mary's, a classmate all the way up never made the cup team, yet Terry Kennedy (he was deemed too small) went on to play 13 times for Ireland in an outstanding career. Niall Woods was another case in point.
Indeed, another classmate Pat Shaffrey, who like Kennedy never made the schools cut, went on to represent the Irish Universities and was a quite brilliant full-back. If players like that can slip through the loop in a small school like St Mary's, then what chance in the more heavily-populated schools?
I would also make the point that without the clubs, and specifically the enthusiastic work that goes into mini rugby the length and breadth of the land, schools rugby wouldn't be in the incredibly strong position it is today.
David Nucifora has a difficult role in his position as performance director with the IRFU. He is doing much right but I would urge caution on a number of issues. The first is the temptation of late to merge schoolboy and youth as one because it will be youth players who lose when missing out on the opportunity to represent Ireland at underage ahead of better prepared schoolboys at that critical point in their development - ie, under 18 to under 20. To the best of my knowledge, the Irish Youths have now but one game in their own right compared to the Easter international tournaments - for schools and youths - that once ran parallel.
Secondly, the need to restore the U-20 interprovincial tournament which three of the provinces - Connacht, Munster and Ulster - have abandoned in recent times. With an U-20 World Cup every year, it simply defies logic to remove such a key piece in the representative building block and such a meaningful trial forum too.
Thirdly, to get rid of the awful B&I Cup. So Munster won it this year, who cares? Of course provincial coaches will back it but mid-week (inter-provincial) fixtures in the back end of nowhere have little if no appeal to rugby folk and I include fringe professionals and academy prospects in that. Of much more relevance is a meaningful All-Ireland club involvement with which they can identify. Munster made the European Champions Cup what it is because of club loyalty and not in spite of it.
You can pump all the iron you want but in terms of skill development and a fuller understanding of team ethic there is no substitute for club rugby.
Much has been made of Joey Carbery's impact in last year's UBL final, and rightly so given his match-winning performance, but there are so many more Carberys out there, fit as fiddles with the strength of bears but twiddling their thumbs in the need for regular game-time.
Unless the governing body addresses the many problems associated with re-establishing a competitive club game that can benefit the academies in the current cycle, we are destined for tougher times ahead.
Few if any of those attending matches on a regular basis in Thomond Park, Irish Independent Park, the Sportsground, RDS or Kingspan have ever been inside a club ground in their lives and more's the pity because they don't know what they are missing.
To see the likes of Conor Murray or Simon Zebo (below) emerge through the system as rookies is an experience in itself. Game-time at club level, weighed against the B&I charade or becoming Mr Universe in the gym, is a no-brainer.
Urgent So let's put an end to the blame game, Union against clubs and vice versa. The only loser in any stand-off is Irish rugby - bottom up and top down. There is an urgent need for compromise and a revamped club competition. We need at least one Premier Division which would be professional in all but name. It would embrace the best of emerging talent with professional players consistently on the fringe of provincial selection plus the best of the rest.
The commitment of club rugby players - non-contracted - is on a par with inter-county hurlers and footballers as well as League of Ireland of Ireland part-timers. They deserve so much more than the current laissez-faire attitude to the cross-border league. There is no denying the need for a radical rethink and, if necessary, major surgery.
Naturally, the provincial academies want the cream of the crop but, to borrow another aphorism, you are only as good as your weakest link and right now club rugby is our weakest link but with the potential, given the talent coming through, to be strong again.
Why not a professional Premiership with provincial leagues thereby returning local derbies to what they once were - but with a trap door to movement up and down? And if that means club amalgamation then let's go there. In the meantime, here's to Brian Hickey and Andy Wood doing what they do best and showing AIL talent for what it is.