Irish home comforts ideal model for Pumas and Italy
With the Six Nations taking centre stage over the past couple of months, a couple of major rugby decisions have slipped through -- not unnoticed, but certainly without any real discussion about their potential significance.
For Italian and Argentinian rugby, this is their NAMA -- a watershed. Both countries are attempting to set in place a professional structure to keep the best emerging talent at home and to attract those who have already flown the coop back to where the heart is.
Think back to the early days of professionalism: all the early signs pointed to rugby in this country following the path of soccer, with the vast majority of our elite plying their trade abroad. Some did emigrate and some are still away, but the number is minuscule, thanks in the main to the way in which Philip Browne and the IRFU have gone about their business.
Player welfare -- in stark contrast to Corinthian times -- has been at the heart of the game's evolution, and by extension its revolution, here. Players have benefited enormously and so too has the game, with the presence of the elite part and parcel of daily life.
Unlike with the round-ball equivalent, young fans can see their heroes in the flesh on a weekly basis. They can touch them, talk to them, have their photographs taken, get their autographs. Keeping the cream at home and establishing a viable commercial product has been the key piece to the professional jigsaw.
We were lucky too in that the provincial system fitted the professional package ever so neatly. Identity was tribal, passionate and historical. Contrast that with the Scottish (districts) and even more markedly the Welsh (regions).
In both nations, the battle for hearts and minds continues. I still find it difficult in referring to Cardiff as the Blues, Llanelli as the Scarlets, Neath/Swansea as the Ospreys or Newport as the Dragons, so think how lifelong supporters of these great club institutions must feel.
Like every other Munster romantic out there, I hope Thomond Park never loses its trademark name, but I am resigned to the fact that one day it will. Right now, selling naming rights is not a necessity, but a dip in on-field form, culminating in empty seats, will see that romantic notion knocked on its head very quickly indeed. Put simply, money talks, as it must in a professional age.
That is the challenge facing the Italian and Argentinian Unions now. The nonsense peddled about the Pumas joining the Six Nations, or indeed South Africa becoming part of a Magners League/Rainbow Cup, has been blown away in the search for the only sensible long-term solution.
For many, the Six Nations is still the top tournament on the planet, apart from the Rugby World Cup. I held that view but in recent years -- 2009 included -- feel it has lost that gloss. It is still unique in terms of the international rugby weekend and all it entails, but as a spectacle, it is struggling.
Aside from the final phase of the Wales v Scotland game or the France v Ireland clash in Paris, what other memorable moments endure this year?
Yes, of course, there has been the odd tasty try (think Tommy Bowe) but, if we are brutally honest, the level of entertainment overall has dropped. Ticket prices increasing with entertainment value decreasing is a pretty dodgy formula.
We all like to trot out the line that, on any given day, any one of the Six Nations can beat any other but, in the case of the Italians, is that really true? They have never beaten Ireland, France or England in the competition. However, on the back of entrance into the Magners League next season, the seeds for future Six Nations competitiveness are being sown. The arrival of Treviso and the new Aironi Region (a renamed Viadana) cannot come quickly enough.
The Magners League is the bread and butter for professional rugby in this part of the world and while it doesn't fully fan my flame, I do admire the efforts being made by everyone at Celtic Rugby. The decision to determine this year's winner by way of a four-team play-off will add to the competition. Few present will forget the 2001 final when over 30,000 made their way to Lansdowne Road to see Leinster beat Munster in the first ever Celtic finale.
A former advocate of the traditional league system (ie, the final table never lies), here too I have come around to the modern-day way.
With Italian teams made up of the best of indigenous talent plus wild geese returning to base, the structure is being put in place for a meaningful Magners League challenge (and by extension Heineken Cup), leading eventually to a much more competitive, better supported national side.
There will be teething problems, not least in terms of fixture scheduling, but the only sensible decision based on an initial four-year license has been made.
So too in Argentina, where the International Rugby Board (IRB) will work with SANZAR (South Africa, New Zealand and Australia) and the Union Argentina de Rugby (UAR) to develop an indigenous professional structure. The stated aim is to ensure that the best Puma players are available for the Tri Nations -- set to become the four from 2012.
With most Pumas currently playing in Europe, it is easier said than done. In order to avoid contractual conflict with European clubs, the aim must be to establish the appropriate structure at home. It's not just that home comforts are best, but as we Irish know, having centrally-contracted players working within these shores makes life significantly easier all round.
The Italian Federation and UAR (as with the IRFU) will govern their player welfare much more caringly than any club employer whether English, French, Welsh or Irish.
There is still a long and difficult road to travel but the first positive steps have been taken in the further development of two of the top 10 rugby nations.
Gut instinct suggests the Puma nut could prove a lot more difficult to crack than the Azzurri. We need a vibrant and sustainable game in both. Whatever else, the IRB and Celtic Rugby have done their bit in opening up this window of opportunity.