IRFU need to stop stalling the club game and drive on
Union scheme creating damaging gap between AIL and pro game
If you tuned into the AIL final in the Aviva last weekend you would have come away with further evidence of a jewel wrapped in sand paper. A thrilling game that went down to the wire, you could see readily why provincial coaches dip into it to stock their larders when the professional game is struggling to keep everyone fed.
For winners Lansdowne and runners-up Clontarf it was the 20th and last stop on a journey through league and knockout rugby that had started back in September. Over the course of that campaign we got a decent amount of quality rugby from players whose conditioning and effort is a credit to them.
A pity then that it had to end in a lunchtime kick-off which suited no one apart from RTE. As for the sponsors, Ulster Bank, they are shelling out a six-figure sum to put their name on a competition which most people still call the AIL. For a variety of reasons this deal is not even close to reaching its potential.
And you could say the same about the competition itself. Next season it will get yet another makeover. As the word implies, this will be cosmetic, with four divisions of varying numbers morphing into five units of 10 teams each. It won't do anything to improve the quality and it won't address the fundamental issues: satisfying those who want the top flight to have a relevance to the professional game; and creating an environment for those who want to trade in a less competitive market.
To be more accurate, the top flight already has a relevance to the pro game - it's just that the IRFU have been actively trying to put distance between the two tiers. The latest and most damaging episode in that saga is due next season with the introduction of the Player Points System. This crock will give every player in the league a rating based on whether he has come up through the ranks of the club he plays for, or if he is a new recruit. Its aim is to restrict movement between clubs. Its effect will be to rain on the parade of those who want to improve themselves.
Interestingly, not everyone in the IRFU thinks this is a good idea. Indeed at least one half of the duo who wield the most power in Irish rugby - Joe Schmidt and David Nucifora - thinks it's bad for business. Nucifora has his feet well under the desk now as performance director and he seems to have a grasp of some of the basics.
"The clubs have got a tough predicament: they've got to work out if they want to be an aspirational club or a participational club," he says. "And if you're an aspirational club you want to provide that pathway and channel for an aspiring professional player. You've got to be able to provide certain things if that's where you want to hang your hat."
Some clubs will be delighted to get that unequivocal message from head office. However, you can't aspire on the one hand to reach that level if on the other hand the people who are running the game - the same head office where Nucifora parks his bike of a morning - are blocking your path by introducing schemes like the PPS.
"Em, I might have a different view on the PPS because I think that the game has to be . . . I don't think you should be putting limitations on things that prevent people from playing. I could have different views to people at the IRFU."
This presents us with an interesting set-piece. After much soul searching and introspection the IRFU this season established its Professional Game Board along with the position of performance director. All new, all singing, all dancing. Right on cue we have a little number where the domestic and professional side of the house have to sing in harmony. Nucifora is on the record that the club game must have relevance to the professional tier. He seems to have grasped what countless blazers have missed: the clubs are already valuable contributors to the development process, so he will have to get the domestic game committee lads in tune.
We understand that discussions are up and running between the professional and amateur factions. That's great. Hopefully the talk won't go on too long, and Nucifora will make the kind of decision he was employed to make.
There are some in the union who fear they will get a caning in the media and elsewhere if they change course again, by scrapping the new regulation banning payments to players, and ditching the PPS before it starts. It will be nothing compared to the kicking they'll get if they don't.
Twenty years after the game went open the IRFU finally tore up their membership of the flat earth society by establishing a professional game board. Fixing the top end of the league, to reflect the relevance of the aspirational clubs to the pro game, is their first fork in the road. Drive on.
Sunday Indo Sport