Potential on many fronts but let's not forget the clubs
Blackrock's proposed facility-share shows the realities clubs now have to face, says Jim Glennon
The end of the calendar year is a time for review and renewal of all aspects of life, and as the midpoint in the rugby season, it provides a convenient opportunity for reflection
One hundred and 40 years after the foundation of the IRFU, and almost 20 years since the formal acceptance of professionalism, the professional game enjoys unprecedented levels of public awareness and, for the bigger games anyway, seemingly ever-increasing television audiences.
The first Six Nations campaign for a new national coach coupled with the positivity generated by the near miss against New Zealand in November, the ongoing exploits of our provinces in Europe and the women's team's first ever championship defence will all combine in the new year to maintain the game's place at the forefront of the minds of the Irish sporting public.
The impetus from November has created an expectation of home wins against Scotland and Italy and of meaningful challenges to Wales, England and France. I'd caution against excessive optimism at this stage though -- autumn form doesn't necessarily transfer through to springtime, and our five competitors could each extract their own particular positives from their respective November campaigns.
The national women's team, having made their hard-earned breakthrough last season, will seek to retain their championship title. Their itinerary, parallel as it is with that of their male counterparts, doesn't make the task of dealing with second-season syndrome any easier and good odds will be available about them retaining their title.
Leinster, Ulster and Munster, while continuing their dominance of the Pro12 League, are well-positioned to reach the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup. There is, too, the added bonus of home draws remaining a realistic target for each. The financial might of the French millionaires, and the depth of squad resources at their clubs, seems poised, however, to assert its presence as the tournament's dominant factor for some time to come, should they so wish.
It's really a question of which of their rivals are resourced to compete with them at the business end of the season which is why home draws are so crucial. As is the rub of the green when it comes to avoiding injuries to squads.
Meanwhile, Connacht look to distance themselves from the league's lowest reaches by turning a new leaf on the back of their great win in Toulouse.
While the rugby media will be dominated by all of the above in the coming weeks and months, the All-Ireland League will continue on its merry way, a relative backwater to the mainstream in peak flood, and largely bereft of recognition outside of the clubs themselves and their members -- the lifeblood of the game on this island.
While the IRFU continues to grapple with the major structural issues which beset the league, the harsh realities with which the clubs must contend were brought into sharp relief recently with the announcement of the proposed new facilities-sharing arrangements at Blackrock's grounds and clubhouse at Stradbrook between Blackrock College and GAA club Cuala. While the proposal is still at an early stage, and the negotiated agreement must go to EGMs of both clubs for acceptance early in the new year, its significance won't be lost on anyone with the best interests of the club game at heart.
The deal has been presented as a serious wake-up call for every club in the country. That it is, and a lot more besides. First and foremost, it provides further evidence of the now rapidly-changing demographics of Irish rugby.
Rock's illustrious heritage within the game -- founded in 1882, they were participants in the inaugural All-Ireland League competition in 1990, and have contributed handsomely and consistently to Leinster and Irish teams down through the years, including no fewer than 11 Lions since 1959 -- and their location in what has traditionally been the geographical heartland of Leinster rugby, along with their position as the natural club of choice for the graduates of one of the world's great rugby academies, all combined to give them iconic status within Irish rugby, and global recognition too.
Times change however. Some great senior clubs of the past, Bangor, Civil Service, Monkstown and Wanderers amongst them, now play junior rugby. On the other hand, no fewer than 17, by my estimate, of the current
league's 48 clubs weren't playing at senior level when the league was inaugurated in 1990. More significantly in the current context, the vast majority, if not all, of those 17 newcomers are firmly rooted in their local communities and have long-established and well-organised youth sections which underpin their sustainability.
The advantages accruing from a vibrant youth section are self-evident; the full extent of the potential benefits arising from ground-breaking initiatives such as the proposed Blackrock/Cuala facility-sharing are only now beginning to be realised.
The challenge for all concerned, clubs and IRFU alike, is the development of a sustainable model for the effective management of clubs, both on and off the field of play.
At the same time, the frequently conflicting demands of promoting what is an often enthralling product at club level with a material recognition of the many and varied other demands, professional and personal, being placed upon players' time must be balanced.
We must never lose sight of the simple fact that the majority of those participating do so, in the game's best traditions, for the simple pleasure of playing. They're every bit as deserving of the attentions of administrators as the English and French money-men -- in fact, they're more so, much more so.