Putting players 'on report' a welcome advance by IRB
With the Six Nations enjoying its mid-tournament break -- there were to be the traditional two weeks gap but the French Rugby Federation put paid to that -- the Pro12 League took centre stage last weekend.
Far be it from me to knock the Celtic competition that keeps the professional game afloat, particularly when it attracts over 16,000 paying punters to the RDS on a February Friday night to watch two under-strength teams, but there is another show in town -- the Ulster Bank All-Ireland League.
Lest some of you forget, it used to be the gateway to professional rugby -- and if there is any semblance of sense at union level, it should be again.
As someone involved in underage coaching, the notion of screening and fast-tracking through provincial academies sticks in the craw. But sadly, such is now the way of the rugby world: identify players young, screen them and slot them instantly into fast-lane mode. I abhor the notion.
Perhaps I am a fossil from a bygone age, but I defy anyone to point out a flaw in the four-tier system of underage, club, provincial and international levels that has long served Irish rugby so well.
The rate of physical and emotional maturation varies dramatically. Just because a boy develops early, say at U-13 or U-14, it does not mean he will end up any better than a late developer.
I am astonished at the emphasis placed on size over skill by many of those doing the screening.
When our greatest ever player was at school in Blackrock -- contrary to popular myth -- he was very talented, but nothing exceptional. However, when Brian O'Driscoll left school and moved on to club rugby at UCD, that spark of magic began to emerge.
I accept that the game today is a different animal to what it once was, but I still find it sad that of the 16,000-odd supporting Leinster at the RDS on Friday night, I doubt if even one-tenth had been inside a club ground.
But the club game still has a very real role to play in Irish rugby.
Unfortunately, with the onset of professionalism, the club game -- globally -- got caught in limbo.
I fully appreciate the benefit of the Celtic League and the investment of the various sponsors, and it's great to see Leinster, Munster and Ulster flying high, but give me an AIL match any day.
And I fully support Fergus Slattery in his campaign to have the club game return to full amateur status. Here, as with elements of the GAA, the main issue surrounds policing the rules surrounding amateurism.
Meanwhile, with minimal fuss, the first straight race for All-Ireland honours since the play-off system came into play in 1998 is hotting up nicely.
With five series of games to go, it is effectively a three-club scramble between Clontarf, St Mary's and Young Munster.
Just two points separate the leading three and, intriguingly, they all have to play each other.
On March 24, Young Munster will welcome Clontarf to Greenfields, while on April 14 the cross-Dublin clash will take place at Castle Avenue.
And on the final day a week later, Young Munster will travel to play St Mary's at Templeville Road.
Recollections of 1993 come instantly to mind -- back then, because of the extraordinary demand, and in the interest of safety -- the IRFU shifted that final-day showdown from Templeville Road to Lansdowne Road.
While Munsters deservedly took the title and Ger Clohessy lifted the trophy, Mary's could justifiably feel aggrieved given that they had to surrender home advantage.
Should it come down to a case of '93 revisited this year, I wouldn't bet against another contentious final-day venue battle arising, even in these lean times.
The trophy's destination may well have been decided at that stage, but 19 years on the parallels are almost freakish.
Munsters won that final match of the 1993 campaign 17-14 by way of a late Aidan O'Halloran penalty, but not before Brent Pope floored Francis Brosnihan to earn red, with Brosie ending up in hospital, and Ger Earls (father of Keith) electrifying Lansdowne Road and the incredible 17,000 present with a scintillating 60-yard opportunist try. It was a score worthy of tipping such a tense and dramatic finale.
Keith Earls, set to be named again in the Ireland side later today, certainly didn't lick it off a stone.
putting players 'on report' a welcome advance by irb
With the Super 15 set to kick off and the first 'Rugby Championship' (Tri-Nations plus Argentina) to follow, southern hemisphere referees have been given the power to put players 'on report' for any suspected act of dangerous or foul play.
It is a system borrowed and adapted from rugby league, aimed at making the match official's job less complex and achieving a greater level of consistency for any subsequent judicial hearing.
It will place a player (suspected of foul play) on report for post-match analysis where some element of doubt exists at the time.
The player placed 'on report' will then face a judicial hearing that will determine whether foul play occurred and the level involved. The International Rugby Board will monitor its progress.
It is a welcome addition at a time when the game is becoming increasingly more difficult for match officials to handle.
No sporting code should ever draw back from bringing in ideas of any other code for the betterment of its own.
For this initiative, certain to be adapted full-time and hopefully universally, the IRB is to be commended.