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Clubs must return to full amateur status and restore old values

It's seldom I find myself in full agreement with a statement emanating from Lansdowne Road, but Philip Browne's assertion "that the club game is for amateur and recreational players while the professional game is for those who want to pursue a professional career" couldn't be any closer to the mark.

When the game went professional 17 years ago everybody was caught unawares. Nobody knew where it was going. Initially there was an exodus of players to the UK.

What was left was a scrap between the traditional middle two tiers of Irish rugby for full professional rights -- the club versus province war was under way.

While the provincial system couldn't have been better equipped to fit neatly into place, the bigger, more ambitious clubs scarcely saw it that way.

While it was a journey into the unknown, the idea of Lansdowne, Shannon, Garryowen, Cork Con, Blackrock -- or whichever then powerful Irish club you care to name -- competing with the likes of Cardiff, Leicester and Toulouse was off the wall.

It was admirable and romantic in theory, but unrealistic in practice.

If the suggestion had been a single entity combining clubs to represent our major rugby playing centres of population, it might have carried some currency, but when the near-perfect provincial solution was already at hand, the route chosen was a no-brainer.

Even still there are some who fail to grasp the parallel between what was then a Welsh club -- say a Cardiff or Llanelli (now 'regions') and an Irish province. Cardiff, for example, represented a city, with every other club in the area feeding into it. So too with Bristol, Leicester, Bath or most any other club you care to name in England.

The only direct parallel was with the Scots, where their clubs fed into the Scottish Districts and Borders for representative purposes.

Once the decision to go the provincial route was made, the Union through central contracting went about their newfound business in the most efficient way.

They may have been playing catch up, but they caught up. Club rugby was always set to be the most obvious loser -- and it still is. Hence the importance of this pronouncement by Browne.

The gap between club and professional level is as wide as ever and getting bigger by the year.

The advent of the British and Irish ('A' team) Cup has added appreciably to the club dilemma, and yet as a club romantic who yearns for days of old, I appreciate the pressing need for a meaningful shadow tournament providing game time for squad members outside the regular match-day elite. It provides the opportunity to monitor progress of peripheral players.

That said, club rugby has a big role to play still in providing the springboard for those amateurs with professional aspirations.

It is immeasurably preferable and more beneficial than any fast-track tin can academy.

Right now the club game is between many stools.

For those of us of a different generation, it is hard to stomach what we are witnessing now.

The idea that not only are club membership fees not paid by many playing members, but some are actually paid for wearing the club shirt can stick in the craw.

When you played on a Saturday for province or country, turning out again on Sunday for club wasn't an issue. You did it because you wanted to.

And if you hadn't paid your sub before Christmas you were excluded from playing when the various cup competitions came around. But again, you paid your club subscription because you wanted to.

loyalty

What price loyalty now? Is it any wonder so many hitherto dedicated members have drifted away from clubs they once professed to love so well?

And what of the lost generation of what were once termed alickadoos? Where have so many 35 to 50-year-olds now gone?

Other unhelpful Celtic Tiger changes had seen the provision of club uniform -- off the pitch and on -- become almost standard practice never mind bandages, supports, padding and various bits and pieces and all the added expense that medical bills entail.

Meals too -- post-training had become an almost essential part of the playing package.

I remember in my playing pomp in perhaps the greatest Garryowen team of all, around the build-up to the Munster Cup, we had a thrill on midweek training nights as second-row forward and army sergeant Rusty Keane would organise a couple of massive pots of stew/curry (courtesy of the defence force kitchen).

It made us feel like prize footballers ahead of an FA Cup final. Rusty's beef pot with Mrs Dolan's fruit bowl to follow. Special memories from special times.

We really appreciated what might seem a relatively small gesture, but to us it was massive, and by and large the performances that followed reflected that appreciation.

So many over-pampered Celtic cubs have lost their way and with it that essential ingredient called loyalty. To return to fully fledged amateurism would be the first step in the right direction.

Quite how we do it I don't know, but like Browne, I believe we can again have a high standard of competitive rugby at amateur level.

Irish Independent