Friday 23 March 2018

Club game the sacrificial lamb of professional era

Today at Temple Hill, Templeville Road, the RDS, Kilballyowen Park, Dub Lane and Towns Park, the semi-finals of the three All-Ireland leagues will be played. Apart from the St Mary's/Old Belvedere match, which is live on RTE2 (kick off 2.05), the remaining games will go largely unnoticed, save for the committed faithful of the clubs involved.

It is a sad fact that club rugby is the sacrificial lamb to professionalism and all it entails. The fact that it is a global dilemma is of no consolation whatsoever. I know I remain in the minority, but give me club before Magners League every time.

Of course, I fully comprehend the need for a bread-and-butter competition to keep the professional game afloat and equally appreciate the efforts of chairman John Hussey and Director of Rugby David Jordan in striving for an ever-improving formula by way of a play-off system for this competition and an Italian presence next season.

The Magners League is at least on a par with the much-hyped Guinness Premiership in England. It has come on leaps and bounds in recent times and I acknowledge the increasing appeal.

However -- and perhaps it is because I'm from the pre-professional era -- I also fully appreciate the appeal of the club game.

Prior to professionalism, making it to the top contained four stages -- school to club to province to country. Now every effort is being made to cut it to three by way of fast-tracking the best underage talent, with the help of provincial academies, from school to 'A' (British and Irish Cup) or in the case of some (Andrew Conway is the most recent example) to the Magners League.


I am firmly of the view that good enough is old enough, so there is no issue there, but the price -- a decimated, largely demoralised club tier -- is too high a price to pay.

Think back to the battle fought in the 1980s to get everyone on board the 'All-Ireland' train. Tell me it didn't pave the way for the provincial success -- Celtic and European -- that has followed since.

The development of the 'A' team tournament has added to the confusion and congestion, yet if I was a provincial boss, I too would want a shadow competition to test emerging academy talent, to rehabilitate those returning from injury and, in the main, to provide game time at a level of intensity closer to that of Magners League and Heineken Cup.

Once the game went professional it had to go the provincial route. It was a no-brainer and suited the Irish rugby situation admirably. We have natural identities the newly invented Welsh regions would die for. In time, it will develop in the principality, but, as of now, there is greater affinity with Llanelli the part-time club than the professional Llanelli Scarlets.

Here grass-root involvement gets crushed further by the season. This generation of rugby fan has bypassed the club gates. Most have never been inside a club ground or clubhouse, never mind attend a club game in their lives. Not to worry, it fuels the professional game and that, apparently, is all that matters.

Look no further than the fixing of the Division 2 and Division 3 finals for the evening of Friday, May 7 at Anglesea Road, at 8.0 and 6.0 respectively.

It is difficult enough for amateur clubs taking time off for long-distance trips at various times during the season without the added expense of this trek to Dublin.

My views on Dubarry Park as a major venue are pretty well established at this stage. It has it all, topped by its geographical location and ease of access. The Division 1 final will be played there on Saturday, May 8.

Why not stage the Division 2 and Division 3 finals there as well on a gala club day as has been the case (at Lansdowne Road) in times past?

Community-based clubs like Nenagh Ormond, Midleton, Banbridge and Bruff would bring great colour and atmosphere to a Dubarry Park Super Saturday triple-final event.

Of course, the unpredictable Irish weather is always a risk, but in May the odds of a good day are decent, while surely a Plan B in terms of alternative venues in the vicinity (should the need arise) is not beyond the organisational ability of the Union powers that be.

To ask the supporters of Queens, Banbridge, Midleton and Nenagh to be in Dublin for a Friday 6.0 kick-off is as unfair as it is demeaning of the competition.

My colleague Martin Breheny on these pages rightly questioned the GAA for scheduling the Division 1 and 2 NHL finals for 7.0 and 5.0 respectively on Sunday, May 2 to avoid clashing with the Biarritz v Munster Heineken Cup semi-final.


His suggestion of the Monday as a realistic alternative seemed logical until Croke Park pointed out that they had been keeping that Bank Holiday free for club fixtures which had been set in place months ago.

While the timing of the finals is not, perhaps, ideal, the GAA deserve great credit for maintaining the paramount importance of club fare and also for acknowledging the genuine cross-sporting interest of the vast majority of GAA fans.

It is not a case of the GAA giving in to the IRFU -- or more specifically the ERC (European Rugby Cup) -- but more a matter of common sense prevailing.

I have little doubt that Derek McGrath, as CEO of ERC, will have appreciated this gesture and made it known to his board of directors to take note of the GAA calendar of events in the future.

Irish Independent

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