An eventful week has just passed, one which probably raised more questions than settled them -- How good are Leinster? Ditto Ulster, with/without John Afoa? Whither Munster? One thing for sure is that, even in their absence in some instances, the influence of non-nationals, playing and coaching, is a major topic for discussion -- Joe Schmidt, Brad Thorn; Tony McGahan, Doug Howlett; Afoa and Mark Anscombe, to name just some.
Key functionaries all, yet the vast majority of participants for the provinces, week in, week out, are home-grown -- some are even the products of the club game, the backbone of Irish rugby right across the island and the bedrock for what we pay to see.
It's opportune, as the club season reaches its finale, to take a look at the club's role in Irish rugby, and particularly its relationship with 'big brother', the professional game.
Where to from here for the club game? More specifically, what can it offer in support of the professional game, if that's to be its primary role? At first glance it would appear the answer is nowhere and nothing, with the gulf between the professional and amateur games growing ever larger, season by season. Closer examination, however, suggests that the club game still has a lot to offer its professional counterpart and, more importantly, its players. Watching Leinster clinically put Cardiff to the sword, one could be forgiven for concluding that the club game has little, if any, relevance to what was going on. A noteworthy fact, however, is that, leaving aside the overseas players, every single Leinster player, with the exception of Luke Fitzgerald, has played at least one season of club rugby in the All-Ireland League.
Scroll down through the Leinster teamsheet and for every player there's a corresponding AIL club providing an integral part of their DNA, including Eoin Reddan, Seán Cronin and Mike Ross, refugees from Old Crescent, Shannon and Constitution respectively.
Many will point to the academy systems and, with some justification, claim that academies have taken over the the role of the clubs in the professional structures. While they undoubtedly have a huge role to play, the jury is out as to just how effective the academies are at producing rounded players with real character -- the guys you want when the chips are down at the business end of the season.
So what can the club game offer in this regard? The most compelling argument comes in the front row, and something I alluded to recently in the aftermath of Twickenham. Any prop worth his salt will regale you, indeed bore you to tears, with colourful stories of learning his trade against a gnarly old campaigner on some obscure pitch and invariably in ugly conditions.
It has long been a feature of the school of front-row play, and indeed a badge of honour for its graduates, that the only way to complete one's education is the hard way, and the harder the better too. In this regard I question the value of 'A' games where the unique 'hand-to-hand' combat of the front row is far more likely to be between players who are on the way up, and have shadowed each other through the schools' and underage systems, than against a wily old prop of the old school -- akin to qualification in other trades or professions being based solely on academic achievement and laboratory experience, with little regard to the real need for practical experience in the field.
Nor is the issue confined to the front row either. Take the spine of any team -- hooker, No 8, scrumhalf, outhalf and fullback; what sets these positions apart is the common requirement for a capacity to make intelligent decisions and execute key skills at the appropriate times. The final stages of Heineken or World Cups are light years away, in terms of glamour, from a Provincial Towns' or Junior Cup Final but they have a lot of common elements. Cup rugby is cup rugby the world over -- cometh the hour of sudden death, cometh the man.
Perhaps the greatest argument for academy players to continue playing club rugby is the character-forming nature of the club game. Young players will learn a lot about the game, and indeed about life, by regularly togging out beside a 32-year-old plasterer with two kids struggling to put food on the table, and with whom they have something in common other than the game they both choose to play.
Successful rugby players need to be grounded also. There is less chance of a player going 'astray' during a professional career if he maintains his connection with that same plasterer with whom he used to tog out -- and not just to help renovate the new pad in D4 or Castletroy either!
Professional players face many challenges in adjusting to the 'real' world post-retirement. As they retire, the game moves on, and rapidly too. Post-retirement is a strange place to be and all players struggle to some extent with the challenges of change.
When stripped down to the essentials, our provincial teams' set-ups are little more than commercial franchises and, as with all businesses, ex-employees are quickly forgotten. Our traditional clubs, though, have the capacity to nurture their own back into everyday life; they provide a vital support network and a more caring environment for players looking to find their way in a new world.
At a time when our traditional club game appears to have little to offer the professional franchises, and our attentions are being drawn increasingly to the imported influence on those franchises, maybe we should think again and ensure that we're making the right decisions before it's too late for players and the game alike.
Sunday Indo Sport