John Greene: Club game finding it a struggle to keep up
ON the day Ireland celebrated the inclusion of nine players in Warren Gatland's Lions squad, there was more troubling news for the game here.
Beneath the success of the international and provincial set-up as we now know it, there lies a club structure which is in crisis, struggling with debt and battling against a sharp decline in playing numbers.
The IRFU is to be commended for the warts-and-all detail contained in a report on club sustainability which it published last Tuesday, even if doing so on the day the Lions squad was being announced certainly guaranteed a minimum of publicity for it. The report outlines in some detail the findings of a working party which had engaged with clubs in a lengthy and exhaustive process.
The report did not paint a pretty picture of the state of the club game in Ireland. Total debt across the 121 clubs, for instance, now stands at €20.48m. Almost one-fifth of that debt (€4.3m) is being carried by just three clubs, while another nine clubs are each in the red for over €500,000. In relation to the accumulated debt, the working party notes: "The reason for the debt could be attributed to a number of factors, including clubs investing in facilities for the future. However, it is clear that in some cases it is the result of clubs over-spending and over-extending themselves to maintain performance on the field."
Debt, especially debt which is beyond the capacity of a club in any sport to deal with in its day-to-day existence, can wreak so much damage. It saps the morale of volunteers who keep the club going; but worse than that it eats away at the entire fabric of the club. More time is spent in dealing with finances than in actually running the playing side of things – those things that really matter, like youth development, coach development and competition.
In the case of rugby, as with the Airtricity League in soccer, the level of payments to players is an issue because there is not a corresponding level of income to support it. It is a nonsense that clubs are allowing themselves to fall into debt on the back of over-payment of players and in the pursuit of success which, if it ever comes, will surely be at too high a price. We have seen time and again in domestic soccer the pitfalls associated with this; it is a downward spiral. Some rugby clubs, says this report, "in the battle to 'keep up' have expended their resources to a point close to bankruptcy". And all this at a time when sponsorship revenue has almost halved, while other streams of income, such as bar takings, have also declined.
And so over the next 12 months a series of measures to help deal with this crisis will be introduced. The key ones are a ban on signing-on fees, restrictions on payments to players next season followed in September 2014 by a complete ban other than legitimate expenses, which will be subject to a cap. Furthermore, any club benefactor or sponsor will have to put their money into the club and can no longer directly support a player. Teams competing in the AIL and in the various qualifying leagues will also have to meet a number of conditions in terms of their financial stability, their facilities and their playing standards across all ages.
Again the analogy with the League of Ireland is obvious, as there are clear similarities between this approach and the licensing system run by the FAI.
The Union is promising to get tough with clubs which do not adhere to the new rules. But the Union is going to run into trouble implementing them, despite its pledge that it will rigorously monitor clubs, even to the point of sanctioning random audits. Those clubs which are already in breach of IRFU regulations, and have devised creative means of avoiding detection, will just adapt. As the GAA found when it attempted to tackle the problem of unauthorised under-the-table payments to managers, it is no easy task. The very public failure to make any inroads led to Peter Quinn's famous admission that the Association could not even find the table. The IRFU will encounter similar difficulties.
And a separate headache for the Union is the ongoing problem of a fall-off in the number of people playing the game, especially those in their late teens.
"It is estimated that less than 20 per cent of schools' players continue to play the game after leaving school. Similarly there is a low transition of youth players who continue to play adult rugby." In fact, a report by Leinster some years ago into under 20s rugby found that only five per cent of players were still playing adult rugby just two years after leaving the age group.
This can be explained by national trends, but only in part, because rugby in particular would seem to struggle more at this level than its chief rivals, the GAA and the FAI. A study on participation in Ireland, published last year, found that there had been a sharp increase in the number of people taking part in sport, up from 32.9 per cent in 2007 to 45.9 per cent by 2011.
However, the bulk of this was due to an increase in the number of people taking up individual pursuits such as cycling and running as opposed to team sports. So, while the numbers who took part in an individual sport grew significantly from 26 per cent of all those who participate in sport to 39 per cent, the increase in those playing a team sport was a more modest two per cent, up from 10 per cent. Rugby did not even feature in the top ten sports played by men or women.
Between 2007 and 2011, membership of clubs rose from just under 32 per cent to just over 38 per cent, including an increase for rugby club membership up to 4.2 per cent, still a long way short of the GAA at 18.5 per cent. Rugby's strongest scoring came in the way of attendance at games, which more than doubled in the same four-year period. But the willingness of people to go and watch the provinces and the international team is clearly not translating into an eagerness to become involved in a meaningful way with the game, either at playing or administrative level.
Which means clubs are seeing a significant decline in playing numbers. For some of the larger clubs, even fielding a second team can be a struggle, something which would have been unthinkable even just a decade ago.
In an era when the professional arm of rugby in Ireland is flourishing, these are worrying times for the club scene.