Thursday 27 April 2017

Restructuring of club game must be radical if it's to be effective

The IRFU's David Nucifora. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
The IRFU's David Nucifora. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Jim Gleenon

A good friend enquired the other day whether my rant on the state of the club game was over. Over the past fortnight, I have written about my concerns about the club scene, and my experience has been that many, many rugby people across the country share my concerns.

My best summation of the general reaction is of a palpable feeling that, for too long now, the clubs have been largely ignored while resources, financial and otherwise, have been directed towards the professional game, and certainly in terms of its marketing and the development of elite players. The elite arm of the game requires constant and careful attention, but there's a strong view, too, that the time has come for the amateur club game to at least stand alongside its professional counterpart rather than continue in the poor relation role of the past 20 years. One particular club chairman summed it up well, saying there would be fewer problems if, over the past decade, the club game had been allocated the marketing budget of even one of the provinces.

I've argued that the historical distinctions between senior clubs and their junior counterparts are outdated and obsolete, and the all-important distinction between the amateur and professional games. The requirement for the development of a new structure that's fit for purpose and reflective of the contemporary reality is an urgent one, while the best interests of club players must be the primary focus.

Some argue that the current meritocracy of the Ulster Bank All-Ireland League delivers such a structure. I've no doubt that while the league undoubtedly served a purpose and drove a new dynamic in its early years, the neatly fitting glove of 25 years ago is no more.

So what would a new structure look like? A semi-professional All-Ireland Premiership of sorts to act as a hothouse for the top uncontracted amateur talent, alongside fringe professionals, is a ­necessity and there's little doubt that ­David Nucifora and his high-­performance team within the IRFU would approve of such a move.

The main sticking point would be its composition and the number of clubs to be involved at this level, along with the issue of promotion and relegation to and from such a grouping. Regional representation would be crucial, as would the sustainable funding of the competing entities, while nobody would suggest that such a shift could occur with anything other than a massive political challenge from the various vested interests.

If the bridge to the pro game is of obvious importance, of even greater importance is the establishment of an appropriate structure for the vast majority of clubs operating at the different levels below the elites, some quite remotely so. For the vast majority, the heights of UBL Division 1A, or even 1B, are so far removed from their own reality and ambition that the introduction of a semi-professional top tier would be of little relevance, or indeed interest. Survival is the priority for all too many.

It's worth stating yet again that adult club players are the game's core component and the facilitation and encouragement of their continued ­participation, at whatever level, must always remain the absolute priority.

The introduction of 10-team, or alternatively eight-team, amateur provincial or regional leagues with clubs playing each other on a home-and-away basis annually, would deliver a vibrant and competitive club structure. Dormant local rivalries would be reignited. A potential for increased flexibility in fixture-making due to the closer proximity of competing clubs would provide opportunities for increased attendances and improved engagement with local communities. Reduced demands on resources of clubs competing nationally would be a significant added advantage.

Admittedly, such a structure would, in theory at least, work better in the more populated provinces, Leinster in particular, but the potential is valid across the provinces. A return to provincial or possibly regional rugby seems sensible, but it's vital that whatever new system is introduced caters for all clubs.

Connacht's clubs are a good example. A 10-team semi-professional league would probably include just one western representative at present. With the province relatively sparsely populated by adult clubs, the variance in strength across the top 10 or 15 would be a concern, and the need for a competitive outlet for all is essential. To this end, a possible repatriation of Athlone-based Buccaneers to Leinster base could have real strategic advantages on both sides of the Shannon.

Inherent in every restructuring are obstacles, and the challenge for the IRFU and its constituent clubs cannot be underestimated. The potential benefits accruing, however, far outweigh the risks. A fairer balance between the amateur and professional games, and a more democratic IRFU would position the sport well for the continued outward push of its traditional boundaries, while retaining its fundamental values and traditions. I know the union are acutely aware of the issues. For change to be effective, it's not enough that it be considered, meaningful, and sustainable - it must be radical, too.

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