Monday 26 August 2019

Ignore the spin: the club game is slipping into irrelevance

Union's charm offensive can't mask the shameful neglect of its clubs

Joey Carbery. Photo: Sportsfile
Joey Carbery. Photo: Sportsfile

Jim Glennon

The All Ireland League has reached the knockout stages, which means it's time for the now annual media-massage by the IRFU.

So we get the unquestioning re-hashing of the Union's press releases trumpeting the finale of the competition - a competition which has functioned this season without a title sponsor.

The spin is that the clubs are doing a wonderful job, producing all these players for our professional game, apparently the be-all and end-all of the All Ireland League.

Forgive me if I introduce a dash of reality. The fact is the top clubs aren't 'producing' players, they're 'facilitating' the four provincial franchises in providing game-time for contracted players who are surplus to requirements on any given weekend. Some of these players might only play for the club a couple of times in their career.

In fact, it is the schools (and to a much lesser extent the smaller clubs) that are 'producing' the players and the franchises are developing them, for better or worse, using the AIL Division 1 clubs whenever suits. The top clubs are little more than tools for the franchises, to the extent that a number of clubs this season refused to accept an allocation of franchise-contracted players.

I have two simple questions for those asserting the prosperity of the club game: How many of the players mentioned played for their current club before their 18th birthday? And how many have ten years' service with their current club ?

The use of Joey Carbery's photo in the publicity is disingenuous too. Carbery learned his rugby with Athy RFC, went to Blackrock College on a scholarship when he was 16, from where he took the well-trodden path to UCD RFC via the Leinster Academy.

He was already a franchise-contracted player when he went to Clontarf, where he may have played about a dozen games in total. And since his move to Munster, he has yet to play a game for a Munster club.

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I have no problem with the top clubs being used by the franchises in this way as they're essential elements of a well-organised professional game. It's the message that they're somehow at the core of a wonderful nationwide club-based grassroots production line of players to the top of the franchises' tree with which I fundamentally disagree.

The schools represent the core of the production line while the top clubs are, to some extent, simply warehouse surplus product, and being used to portray, sometimes through shoddy and lazy reporting, that somehow the club game is prospering.

I have written before about the decline of the club game and its shameful neglect by the IRFU. It saddens me to say that the decline predicted several years ago has gathered considerable momentum, to the extent that it is generally accepted as irreversible.

The culture of Irish rugby has fundamentally changed. The professional game (AIL Division 1 clubs included) flourishes and, superbly administered as it is, will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the amateur club game is in dire straits, and even the schools game, the bedrock of so much, has its emerging challenges.

Is it too much to ask that the IRFU administrators, all of whom are elected representatives of their individual clubs, now turn their attention, together with the considerable financial resources at their disposal, to the plight of the vast majority of their constituent clubs?

Externally, the edifice may appear to be in magnificent shape but the foundations are in urgent need of thorough examination and well-researched and resourced rehabilitation.

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