Sport Rugby

Wednesday 13 December 2017

It's four proud provinces ... not three plus Connacht

Connacht's Michael McCarthy wins a line-out against Munster during their Magners League clash against Munster. RAY RYAN/SPORTSFILE
Connacht's Michael McCarthy wins a line-out against Munster during their Magners League clash against Munster. RAY RYAN/SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Back in 2003, the country was awash with money, or so we were led to believe. Professional rugby was still finding its way so, far from galloping on the back of the Celtic Tiger, the IRFU was already looking at ways to trim its costs, with Connacht top of its figure-cutting agenda.

But rugby out west stood strong. The march on Lansdowne Road left little doubt as to the depth of feeling. Connacht rugby folk and fair-minded people everywhere let their anger be known, leading eventually to the union drawing back on its guillotine course, albeit with much reluctance.

Seven years have passed and while the pro game has strengthened immeasurably, Connacht continues to operate on a most unfair playing field. The powers that be will argue that, per capita, Connacht is well subsidised. But when it comes to equality of opportunity, Connacht continues to be severely handicapped.

The province is operating on a one-year contractual agreement with the union. What chance with that? With such insecurity, how can they ever have any semblance of continuity in quality going forward?

Teams, and individuals, need stability. Look at one of the most successful of Connacht's many overseas recruits, Paul Warwick. The Australian, who left to join Munster in 2007, had negotiated a move to London Irish last year because the IRFU, through its Munster Branch, would not commit beyond a one-year deal.

Goodwill

Eventually, aided by goodwill on the part of the Exiles (in not seeing it through), a new, longer-term Munster contract was agreed. But who can blame any player for wanting to get the best and most secure contract he can?

Multiply that Warwick insecurity many times over and it highlights the unstable and unfair working environment in which Connacht must operate on a yearly basis. The concept of 'development province' (to the other three) sounds wonderful in theory but in reality makes daily working life, never mind individual and collective esteem, difficult in the extreme.

Back in '03, the Australian parallel held strong. The argument held firm that the Oz template, working off comparable numbers, made for just three pro teams in the traditional rugby heartlands of Queensland (the Reds) and New South Wales (Waratahs) as well as the compromise setting of the Australian Capital Territory (the Brumbies, based in Canberra).

Now to that add the Western Force in Perth, as well as the soon-to-be-unveiled Melbourne Rebels. Where once there were three professional entities soon there will be five playing Super Rugby, yet to the best of my knowledge there are more playing rugby union here than in Australia.

Bear in mind too that, unlike in Ireland, rugby union there must compete with long-established professional field sports in Australian Rules and rugby league, as well as the fast-developing A-League Soccer.

Our Gaelic Games are amateur, while soccer is mainly part-time, leaving rugby a clean run at the professional sporting market. Add to that our record of success at provincial and national level in recent years and despite tough economic times, it leaves the game in pretty decent financial health.

There is money to help Connacht, and the westerners deserve it.

John Muldoon typifies what Connacht rugby is all about. The captain is proud to earn his living representing western people -- neighbours, friends and family. It is an identity special, if not unique, to Irish rugby.

But I struggle to define Connacht as of now. I could latch on to 'development province' but in truth I don't really know what that means nor, I suspect, do the IRFU.

It sounds technically cool but is in reality a kop-out, buying time until a decision has to be made either to do Connacht properly or not at all.

There are too many overseas players on the Connacht books, yet I can understand why.

Muldoon summed it best when he said at the weekend: "There's a fine line between taking an Irish player who's not good enough for another province and taking a foreign player. We need players who are going to make us better, make us more competitive and if that's a foreign player, that's the way it has to be. We'd love to take players who are struggling to make the other (Irish) teams but unfortunately they won't come to us."

They might of course if the price was right, with security of tenure and potential for success built in.

Connacht are chasing a Heineken Cup place on three fronts. They will qualify if any of the following three conditions are met: they finish above Ulster in the Magners League; they win the Amlin Challenge Cup; or either Munster or Leinster win the Heineken Cup. I want them to succeed, because if nothing else it would force the issue the IRFU simply don't want to address: what to do with Connacht?

All reasonable Irish rugby folk demand a vibrant fourth province, not as a feeder but as a realistically equal alternative. Whatever it takes to level the playing field for "the four proud provinces of Ireland" -- not three and a development -- no stone should be unturned.

It should not take Heineken qualification, but a conscious decision on the part of the governing body to make that call -- one embracing courage and conviction.

The other three have won a competition Connacht has still to compete in, yet interest in the game at under-age levels in clubs and in schools out west is extraordinarily high. In terms of popularity, rugby is right up there. Can you imagine what success might do to further that rugby interest still?

Having a shop-window professional side to which every young boy can aspire to is paramount to the ongoing health of the game in the province. We are blessed with a natural affinity and provincial identity with which the newly regionalised Welsh, for example, would die for.

Far from being fearful, the governing body should be brimming with excitement at the prospect of four Irish teams competing in the top tier in Europe.

I dearly hope Connacht succeed in that long-held Heineken Cup ambition but irrespective of it being achieved, the time has come for the IRFU, in Willie Duggan's most colourful and motivational pre-match words, "to s**t or get off the pot".

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