WE'VE come along way since the days of socks and snack boxes. In the early 1990s, the Munster U-20s held a training session on a filthy Wednesday night in Kanturk -- logistically selected as a midway point between Cork and Limerick.
The absence of floodlights meant the activity was conducted in the watery glare of the various car headlights present and, afterwards, wet and thoroughly miserable, the players were each handed the queenly sum of £2.50 -- enough to buy a snack box and can of Lilt in the local chipper.
Player welfare was not a live issue back then (neither, obviously, was player diet) and the most you were entitled to was a pair of socks at the end of the inter-provincial season, if a jersey went missing there was hell to pay.
In the amateur era, the thinking was that if a player was called up to representative rugby, at any level, that honour was enough and, in truth, it was. However, following the advent of professionalism, the landscape, inevitably, changed and Ireland has lagged behind other rugby-playing nations in the area of player welfare.
The easy assumption is that professional players have it easy ... a life of tracksuits, computer games, adulation, endorsements and six-figure salaries.
For the elite, there is an element of truth to that supposition. A rugby player's career is short but the likes of Ronan O'Gara, Brian O'Driscoll and their ilk can earn enough to set them up for life after rugby. But there are also the journeymen professionals for whom the future is far less certain and this is where IRUPA comes in.
The Irish Rugby Union Players Association was set up in 2001 as the official representative body for professional rugby players in Ireland -- irrespective of nationality -- and they endured a baptism of fire with the battle to preserve the existence of Connacht, one of the country's four professional, sub-international teams.
Although IRUPA were late starters compared to the other major rugby nations and have had to struggle for credibility and clout with the IRFU, they have gone from strength to strength and recently introduced a much-needed measure to provide for Ireland's professional players post-retirement.
Hamish Adams, a New Zealander who came to Ireland at the turn of the decade to play and coach in the All-Ireland League before doing a three-year stint as manager of the Munster Academy, has been appointed as IRUPA's Player Services Advisor.
The position is the first of its kind in Irish sport and Adams is now responsible for providing players with one-to-one guidance on all aspects of their career, including education, personal development and time management, with a view to preparing them for the transition to life after professional rugby.
Adams is well qualified for the position. He earned a degree in Sports Psychology in New Zealand while his time in Irish club rugby and with the Munster Academy means he has gained an in-depth knowledge of the game in Ireland and the challenges facing those who wish to forge a career in it.
Installed in his new role since February, Adams says the response from the players has been remarkable.
"The interest among players has been huge, this was a long time coming," said Adams.
"In terms of player welfare, we're 10 years behind the Australians and New Zealanders, whose Super 14 franchises each have my equivalent working with their squads. That's the goal and, down the line, we'd like to have four Player Services Advisors, one for each province.
"We're doing player surveys to see what players are specifically looking for, we're doing financial workshops with experts giving advice on how players can best manage their earnings and invest for the future and I've also set up relationships with recruitment companies to help with job placement, work experience, putting together CVs and skills development," added Adams.
"Say a guy had an engineering degree from his time in college but then spent the next five years playing professional rugby. Obviously, engineering changes within five years so there may be an opportunity for him to work half a day a week with an engineering company to keep abreast of developments and get an insight into what is required to work in that environment."
IRUPA chief executive Niall Woods is hugely encouraged by the response to Adams' appointment. Woods, the former Ireland, Blackrock and London Irish winger, has first-hand experience of the vagaries of life as a professional rugby player having being forced to retire from the game with a cruciate ligament injury.
"The only certain factor in any professional rugby player's career is that they will retire and we want to prepare them for that eventuality," said Woods.
"Simon Best (the Ulster and Ireland and prop who was forced to give up the game last season due to a medical issue) is a recent example of an international player forced to retire involuntarily.
"It can come as a huge shock, a massive life re-adjustment at a comparatively young age, and we view the Player Services Programme as the biggest growth area in terms of player welfare for the next three years. We hope to have two advisors in place in the next 12 months. It's a new development in Irish sport and, to be honest, I thought it would be a slow burner but the take-up has way exceeded my expectations.
"The IRFU fully understand that we have a duty here to look after the players. I don't think they did initially but they know now they can't just pay a player a wage and then toss them out when their careers are over," added Woods.
"Player welfare is hugely important. I know of one player who retired and has had to live with his parents, along with his wife and child, because he had done nothing to prepare for life after rugby."
We tend to associate professional rugby with the glamour of Munster's Heineken Cup victories or Ireland's recent Triple Crowns. Ireland's top players have become celebrities and heroes, aided by ever-increasing media exposure and commercial opportunities.
But, as with any job, rugby has its lesser lights, the lower wage-earners eking out a living knowing they may never progress to the level where they will not have to worry unduly about retirement.
Factor in the attritional nature of a sport which rarely allows careers to extend much beyond 10 years at the top level and IRUPA's concentration on player welfare assumes even greater importance.
The rules have changed, in every sense, since the move to professional rugby -- memories are short these days and do not pay the bills.
IRUPA's initiative is a welcome one in an era when retired players require something more tangible than a raggedy pair of red socks gathering mould in the attic.