Tony Ward: Provinces paying heavy price for massacre of club game in pro era
Published 16/01/2016 | 02:30
Leinster fans might not appreciate it but Munster Rugby holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Irish folk everywhere.
Blessed with a golden generation of players honed on fiercely competitive club rugby, and although Ulster were first on the winning rostrum, it was Munster who blazed the European trail and in the process laid down the early marker for the development of professional rugby in this country.
Leinster took it to another level with a different style of play appropriate to more plentiful resources but it was the southern province who lit the way.
Mention the word Munster in a rugby context and 'winning at the death', 'digging deep', scraping that precious away bonus, 'leaving nothing behind' are but some of the associated expressions that come most immediately to mind.
Munster is synonymous with heart and soul and fight and spirit. In a nutshell, that is why the reaction to the Stade Francais defeat has been volcanic.
Is it over the top? Perhaps. It was after all only the loss of a rugby match. But more is it a reflection of how a sporting team has infiltrated the hearts and minds of a nation. We would like to think there is a little bit of that dog, that never say die spirit, in all of us.
That is where the real damage was done when exiting Europe last Saturday, or put simply 'Stand up and fight' they did not.
There is a world of difference between losing and losing badly. That is why Alan Quinlan reacted on television in the way he did.
Quinny was part of that golden generation of Munster rugby players who even when they lost - and they did - stood up and fought. What he said wasn't premeditated or planned: it came from the heart. And that is its essence. Munster rugby is and has always been played from the heart.
I played on Munster teams that beat the All Blacks and beat the Wallabies but I also played on one annihilated by the Romanians in Thomond Park. I remember that defeat and the manner as if it were yesterday but it re-energised us and beating Australia followed
Everybody has their theories as to what has gone wrong. I would like to think that like most other things in life, this temporary demise is cyclical and the Irish provinces will come again, but we can't take that chance.
Where lessons are being learnt - and it applies to all four professional entities - is in balancing young and indigenous coaches with at least one older, wiser, more experienced head.
Bringing in Andy Farrell in the short term in a consultancy role is to be welcomed but I still believe a place should be found for a Declan Kidney, an Eddie O'Sullivan or a Michael Bradley going forward, whether it be at Munster, Leinster or wherever.
We have the proven expertise but refuse to use it. Begrudgery, the long-established national disease, is alive and well.
Irish rugby has prospered on a four-tier system going from underage (school and youth) through club to provincial and finally on to international. It was a steady climb, with the final step between provincial rugby and the international game the biggest one of all.
Professional rugby changed all that, with Champions Cup rugby as close as it gets to the game at the very top.
The problems it left are at the other end and here the IRFU stands indicted. In the rush to professionalism the club game in this country has been massacred. I try to attend a club match every week depending on professional commitments and I can tell you the antipathy towards the governing body is wide-felt.
That we still have a reasonably vibrant game below provincial is a miracle in itself. And that comes down to the dedication and voluntary commitment of lifelong members in clubs throughout the land.
Isn't it a sad state of affairs when few involved in the clubs go to Pro12 or Champions Cup and most who attend the RDS, Kingspan, Thomond, the Sportsground etc have never been inside a club ground in their lives?
There is no magic wand but there is a way through re-investment in the club structure whatever that takes.
We are not looking to get it back where it was at its zenith in the '90s - that simply won't happen - but there is room for manoeuvre, specifically a tailored All-Ireland competition of Premier and First division with the other three (as currently constituted) returning to provincial leagues but still embracing a trapdoor allowing for promotion and relegation.
The white elephant that is the B&I Cup can also be put out of its misery with fringe professional and Academy players returned to club involvement on a weekly basis. It's not nuclear science but as of now we are heading for the American system of pro sport or no sport though our rugby.
I witness at first hand the screening of underage players, and it scares the living daylights out of me, this so-called talent identification process.
The unstated aim is to fast-track the best of emerging talent (most often based on physical size, believe me) from the earliest possible age through academies into the provincial/professional game.
Our player protection policy is well intentioned at the very top but what these young players need is not a gym bunny culture but skill development through competitive club involvement.
The killing fields that made Munster what it is and can still be need radical and urgent re-assessment.
The CEO, the coach, the manager and other backroom staff can all be changed at the drop of a hat but the club structure central to developing the conveyor belt of talent still coming through the schools and clubs (Youth) must have significant reinvestment by way of root and branch surgery.
The fact that club rugby is struggling around the world on the back of the game going open is no defence. If we can lead the way with the Garryowen, with player welfare and more recently with the choke tackle (God forbid) then why not a top-quality domestic league?
The game at the highest level enables us to buy the fuel that fills the tank, but we have lost sight of what it is that got us to that level of competitive performance in the first place.
The chickens have come home to roost.