Hard-up clubs must find their place in reality
The financial difficulties of some sides is the regrettable legacy of their annual campaigns to out-do each other, writes Jim Glennon
The controversy surrounding the IRFU's recent pronouncement in relation to the non-Irish eligible players has, by extension, served to shine a light on the current state of the club game, and particularly its place in the overall structure of Irish rugby.
This is the 17th season since the game officially went professional in 1995. Prior to that at club level, illegal under-the-counter payments had gradually become commonplace in the Irish club scene from the mid-1980s, as they were almost everywhere else in the rugby-playing world. We had belatedly begun to experiment with our own version of the mysterious 'boot-money' of the Welsh, the inflated 'expenses' of the English and the blatant 'blind-eye' bungs of the French.
Indeed one of the few positive aspects for the IRFU of the onset of professionalism (which they vehemently opposed) was that they were relieved of the potentially massive challenge of dealing with the then-rapidly evolving problem on their doorstep.
Exactly 20 years previously, in 1975, Greystones and Skerries had become the first clubs outside Dublin city to play senior rugby in Leinster (other than Enniscorthy in the 1920s and the Curragh during the War, for limited periods). Their promotion to senior ranks was an indicator of the demographic changes underway in Leinster rugby. Gone were the days of the then 13 Leinster senior clubs being less than an hour's stroll from Lansdowne Road. The ranks of senior clubs in the province have since been augmented with the promotion of Barnhall/NUI Maynooth, Boyne, Co Carlow, Naas, Navan and Seapoint.
Since the 1970s, Munster too has seen similar development (Bruff, Cashel, Clonakilty, Middleton, Nenagh, Waterpark) outside the established urban centres, as has Ulster (Ards, Armagh, Ballynahinch, Bangor, Derry, Portadown, and Rainey OB). Sligo's presence in the All Ireland League this season is evidence of the contagion spreading into Connacht too.
The old order has changed dramatically, and the game is now deeply rooted in communities across the entire island, with participation no longer confined to the professional classes. Its development has been massively advanced too by weekly exposure on TV of locally based heroes successfully representing their province on the international stage.
Scratch the surface, however, and the reality beneath the veneer of expansion isn't nearly as positive. While the quality of coaching and the rugby being played is improving year-on-year, too many clubs are stretched to the limits to fill first-team squads, several are in deep financial difficulties and while most report a boom in underage numbers, none are immune from the universal problem for all sports of participation from teens into 20s.
The severe financial difficulties of some of the big-name clubs are not only symptomatic of the times in which we live but also of the regrettable legacy of their annual campaigns to out-do each other, campaigns financed for the most part by sponsorships now evaporated, borrowings now called-in, and gate receipts now unimaginable.
In addition, attempts at recovery are hampered by the withdrawal of large cohorts of members, those who in other times would, as recent past players, have been approachable for support but who have now lost touch with their club as a result of its concentration of all available resources on its flagship team. Even the allocation of tickets for home internationals, for many the only remaining link with the club, was withdrawn from members for release for lucrative sale to the corporate sector.
There's more than a hint of irony in the momentum which appears to be gathering, to some extent at least, behind a movement to return the club game to a strictly amateur regime. The irony lies in the fact that some of those at the forefront of the project are from clubs who were equally to the fore in the times of untrammelled extravagance which lie at the root of the current problem. To anyone in possession of even a scintilla of objectivity, the idea of the introduction of such a manageable regime based entirely on self-policing and a voluntary code of conduct is every bit as unrealistic as the disastrous hotbed of profligacy it seeks to replace.
That many clubs allowed themselves be carried away in the wave of excitement immediately post-1995 is beyond argument. As Leinster coach at the time, I even came across a few Irish clubs harbouring genuine ambitions for themselves of competing on the international stage with the Harlequins, Leicesters, Baths and Toulouses of this world. However, if not quite as unrealistic in terms of ambition, most others were every bit as competitive in terms of their place at the top table of Irish club rugby and it will forever be a source of regret that, by and large, financial acumen was an afterthought.
It's a truism that league tables don't lie, and therein may lie the solution. If the game, at its highest level, is simply another form of show business (as I believe it to be), and at its lowest is amateur sport in the truest sense, then somewhere in the middle a happy medium will be found. If the well-resourced, of which there are a tiny few, and the well-organised, of which there are a few more, wish to pursue their aspirations to the summit of Irish club rugby by buying success then good luck to them, but let's have no posturing about payments, one way or the other.
If others prefer the amateur route, then good luck to them in their endeavours too. But let's forget about whether one is being paid and another isn't; it really doesn't matter a jot once each participant -- individual, team or club -- is comfortable with their own particular place in the overall scheme of things, and that we're all true to our own particular values. The beauty of a league is that every team will always find its own true level.
Every government in the world has found it beyond their powers to effectively police systems of payment to the advantage of the greater good of their communities; Ireland is no different and even within Irish sport both the GAA and FAI have experience of the immense difficulties involved. Why should we delude ourselves into thinking that Irish rugby clubs have the answer?
Sunday Indo Sport