Nucifora's search for second-tier games reaches New England
When a colleague in this office saw the IRFU's 'New England Free Jacks' email pop into his inbox on Friday evening he thought they were announcing a clothing deal. If only.
You most likely have never heard of the Free Jacks, aside perhaps from a public convenience that didn't require a coin in the slot. They are a Boston-based rugby franchise ready to join up with the new Major League Rugby (MLR) competition which kicked off in the US this season. For them to nail down a series of games next March/April with our provincial A sides is a huge feather in their cap. For Irish rugby to secure this new connection is not quite in the same ballpark.
So why are the IRFU getting into this most unlikely bed? They need to give players games. Allowing for injuries, each province could have circa 10 players who don't make the match-day 23 in either Pro14 or European competition each week. The union had hoped to ramp up the AIL to make its top end a competition appropriate for these players, but the clubs knocked them back.
Their main reasons for rejecting the plan include the temporary suspension of promotion and relegation in order to achieve a regional spread, the size of the proposed divisions, and the absence of any limit on the number of professional players who could take part.
Underpinning this opposition was widespread distrust/dislike of IRFU performance director David Nucifora, and a desire - certainly in Leinster - to have a club competition controlled by the branch rather than head office. The anti-Nucifora lobby seem happy to be blind to what he was saying, instead focusing on the fact that his lips were moving at all. And the second bit, the lust for regaining control of competitions, is to miss the point altogether.
The only goal the clubs have scored was the direct hit on Nucifora's patience button. The line from the IRFU is that he's still open to offers from the clubs on their own vision of the future, but we fear that ship has sailed. In which case, as was apparent to anyone prepared to think about it, he started ringing around the rugby world looking for someone to play ball.
And that brings us to the New England Free Jacks. The Celtic Cup with the Welsh regions took care of the first two months of this season but a great yawning gap lies ahead. So in the spring our four provincial A sides will, in sequence, fly into Logan Airport for a programme that will involve a game against the locals and then a game against one of the other provinces.
These fixtures will clash with the AIL, which will be building towards a climax of its sponsorless season. In fairness, why would you want to invest in a competition where the vast majority of clubs want to operate in the dark?
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Meanwhile, Scotland and Wales are having their own internal battles trying to establish their second tier to support the pro game. And Nucifora will keep working the phones.
The IRFU claim this American tie-up is cost neutral - one of the great attractions of a revamped AIL was keeping it all on the island, where costs were more controllable - in which case the Free Jacks must be writing a fat cheque to cover costs for their new buddies. Perhaps the IRFU have agreed to pick up the tab for the return gig next season.
The union also say the door is still open to the AIL clubs. Let's see if the emergence of a second A team competition, with the prospect of more to come, prompts those same clubs to walk through it.
Sunday Indo Sport