Friday 15 December 2017

Just another step on slippery slope of the pro game

The IRFU must tread carefully to ensure all its players are kept happy, says Jim Glennon

The sight of a camán-wielding Michael Bent suitably attired in his newly-acquired IRFU tracksuit peering out from the pages of the morning papers caused more than a few upset stomachs on Tuesday last.

My own difficulty centred around the absence of imagination and forethought which led to setting up the ultimate in clichéd photo opportunities. When I read on to discover that his sister had once been an entrant in the Rose of Tralee competition, I reckoned the communications team had been off duty for the weekend and that renowned practical joker Donncha O'Callaghan had taken control. At least the tracksuit was green, and not the anthracite shade launched later in the week.

"How in the name of Jesus have we arrived here?"

"It's not right."

"Ireland is not a club."

These were the words of Keith Wood on Newstalk on Thursday night. He didn't hold back.

But the big question must be on Bent's capacity to perform to the required standard for Leinster in the first instance, and for Ireland too.

I'm slightly surprised at Wood. As a major player, on and off the pitch, in the evolution of the professional game and of the welfare of players within that process, he would have had a greater awareness than most of the direction the game is going in. He played and indeed captained numerous Irish teams which included several players whose qualification was under the same grandparent rule.

Bent's arrival could certainly have been handled more professionally, with a prior introduction to his Leinster colleagues, but, in reality, the only difference between this case and those of Wood's former colleagues is the speed with which the player was brought into the squad, literally directly from the airport having just set foot on Irish soil for the first time.

I referred recently to the symbolism of the introduction of advertising hoardings to Lansdowne Road four decades ago, the thin edge of the wedge at the top of the slippery slope, as it were. In the context of the professional game, Bent's arrival will be looked backed on as nothing particularly remarkable, just another step along the road.

Those with the welfare of the club game at heart will, however, be concerned with the potential for spillover and seepage into their game, the culture of which is increasingly dictated by events as presented through the prism of the media. Rugby is currently enjoying a period of unprecedented popularity in this country, and that this is down to the successes enjoyed by the provincial and national teams, as a direct consequence of the IRFU's efficient management of the transition to professionalism. This surge in popularity, however, based as it is around attendances at the weekly provincial games on the one hand and, on the other, a jump in the number of youngsters participating at club level, serves only to paper over the cracks evident in the structures of the club game. Supporters have opted for province over club.

Equally, experience has taught us the folly of presuming that the increased numbers at underage level will convert into anything other than, at best, a minor increase in adult participation. Meanwhile, players at club level, the vast majority of them amateur, are subjected to ever-increasing time pressures and clubs, in the main heavily indebted, are put to increasing expense, not all of it necessary. What should be a wonderful recreational activity is evolving into the preserve of a small group of individuals committed to a sport geared more to the spectator than the player.

Unlike the professional game, where the spectator is king, the player is the lifeblood of the club game. The twin objectives of the IRFU are by no means complementary, and are, at times, simply conflicting. Is it unreasonable to suggest that those same clubs, through their collective union, should see to it that the club player, their raison d'etre, might be afforded the same levels of attention as the provincial spectator?

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