Jim Glennon: Enforcement critical to maintaining level playing field
Banning clubs from paying players requires serious follow-through from the IRFU.
SINCE the advent of the open game in 1995, the club game in Ireland has been immersed in what has become a near-permanent state of flux, the structures subjected to a process of ongoing review.
It's worth recalling that in the early '90s, the All-Ireland League in which the clubs participated was a league of high quality in which a liberal sprinkling of international players performed in front of sizeable audiences on a weekly basis. A measure of its status was the perceived realism of the threat of a number of the top clubs of the time that they, rather than the then relatively beleaguered provinces, should take the Irish places in the inaugural European Cup.
That was, however, as good as it got for the clubs. Since then, the domestic league has suffered in the shadows of the Celtic League and European Cup and, in a manner akin to the interminable tweaking of the laws around the scrummage, there remains a number of outstanding structural issues.
I should say that, by all accounts, while the quality of the rugby played in the league may have fallen back for a spell, it is generally accepted that standards have improved greatly again in recent years and that the league at the moment is one of decent quality.
The past couple of seasons have seen another period of review on the part of the IRFU, this time hallmarked by an unprecedented level of consultation; the fruits of those labours are to be seen in the recently-published Club Sustainability Report which, unsurprisingly, focuses principally on the areas of financial management and player transfers – issues which are inextricably linked and at the core of clubs' problems.
Debt levels of clubs around the country are alluded to, and this is indeed a major problem. The key focus of the report is pay for play. With playing numbers dwindling in most clubs, in many cases after years of senior squad and support team receiving payment, there have been countless calls for a return to the game's traditional amateur ethos, of an era when vibrant clubs fielded several teams on a weekly basis from September to April. The most notable voice among those calling for such a move has been Fergus Slattery of Blackrock College, who called for the complete outlawing of payment to players; this report, essentially, echoes these calls.
While there is mention of a possible twin-track approach where amateur and professional league structures would operate in tandem, the practicalities involved are such that, to me at least, it doesn't appear to be a runner.
The crucial question around the banning of payments to players is as obvious as it is simple: can such a ban be enforced? It's easy for clubs to financially reward some or all of their players and keep it off the books through benefactors, donors, or sponsors. In many walks of life, enforcement and compliance officials the world over are often at least one step behind their quarry.
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It can be reasonably argued too that a club which has developed a sustainable operating or funding model, where they are in a position to financially reward their players without jeopardising the club's future prosperity, should not be prevented from doing so. Laudable as the ambition of such clubs to progress, raise standards, and develop the quality of their playing base may be, I do believe that in the interests of the overall well-being of the club game in Ireland a semblance, at least, of a level playing field must be maintained.
On the subject of player transfers, there's a lot to recommend the focus on a 'one life, one club' GAA-type model whereby the potential for player movements between clubs is minimised. Having experienced some of the highs and lows of the club game in Ireland over the past decade with my own club Skerries struggling to retain senior status, then being relegated to junior, and then going through the process of finding our feet in changed surroundings to eventually achieve promotion back to the AIL, I have been re-affirmed in my long-held view that community rugby is where the future lies for the Irish club game.
Clubs, for the most part, producing and developing their own players and officials from, and supported by, their local communities is, for me, the very essence of sustainability and, as such, clearly represents the future. While there will always be an element of natural migration of players towards the bigger towns and cities, along with the equally natural desire for movement on the part of some players ambitious to advance their progress to the professional game, these are issues which can be accommodated with goodwill all round.
Rugby in Ireland has enjoyed unprecedented levels of popularity in recent years, the vast bulk, if not all, of it directed at the professional game. The protection, development and prosperity of the clubs throughout the island must be of paramount importance to those with the real interests of the game at heart. The IRFU have done their members some service with this report, however belated that service may be; without effective follow-through, what they've done will, justifiably, be dismissed as mere 'lip-service'.
In the current context, effective follow-through means enforcement. Simple.