Tuesday 20 February 2018

Shambolic start bred success but we need to change again

Malcolm O'Kelly with his team-mates from Leinster's first European Rugby team in 1995 against Milan Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Malcolm O'Kelly with his team-mates from Leinster's first European Rugby team in 1995 against Milan Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

Jim Glennon

Leinster marked a significant milestone at the Aviva last Saturday night: 21 years of uninterrupted participation in European competition in its various incarnations.

From an inauspicious beginning in front of a few hundred spectators in a Milanese athletics stadium on Wednesday November 1, 1995, when a late try from Niall Woods was enough to dispose of a Diego Dominguez-led home team on a 21-24 scoreline, through the Cheika and Schmidt glory days, the current team were back in Lansdowne Road having suffered the ignominy of losing four successive games in the competition for the first time.

Most of that squad from Milan were there as guests of Leinster, together with the coaching and back-up team of which I was proud to be part. We didn’t reflect long on current issues, understandably preferring to compare notes from the 1990s and to remember when rugby wasn’t just a much simpler game, but a totally different one.

In 1995, although the game had gone ‘open’, the money had yet to make its way into the hands of the players here. Having won in Milan, we had to win at home to Pontypridd for a semi-final place. Word filtered through from South Wales — so we were told anyway, but I always suspected that it was from much closer to home — that the Welsh, in their time-honoured tradition, had arranged a win bonus for the game of £2,000 per man. At this time, none of the Leinster group, players or management, were even drawing expenses.

Discussions took place, the outcome of which was a discreet and, I felt, legitimate payment, days in advance of the game of IR£300 per player as a ‘gear allowance’. Word of the historic payment of the new era wasn’t long leaking to Lansdowne Road however, resulting in myself as Head Coach, the late Sandy Heffernan, Honorary Secretary and Bill Mulcahy, President being called in for a hauling over the coals .

That hurdle was cleared however and another late score, this time an Alan McGowan penalty, saw us through by a single point to a home semi-final against Cardiff, when a real issue arose.

Incredibly, if we made the final the following weekend we would be without our top players as the European final clashed with a Test match against the USA, which itself was the culmination of a week-long warm-weather camp in Florida. Eight of our players were on a red-eye flight on the morning after the semi-final to join up with Murray Kidd’s squad. Shambolic. As it happens, we lost the semi-final, and the training camp in Florida was a washout because of a tropical storm.

But at least Leinster, Munster and Ulster were up and running in the competition, the English clubs, in another time-honoured tradition, opted not to take part. The Scots and Welsh were on board, both beginning lengthy periods of identity-crises and tensions between their clubs, unions and regions, some of which linger to this day. Romania were represented too, with two teams who sadly faded almost immediately, as were the Italians and, of course, the French.

Crucially, our provincial structure, albeit a strictly amateur one, provided a ready-made template which almost perfectly fitted the new reality, a structure which provided the foundation on which the fledgling Irish professional game would develop.

That the English were slow out of the blocks was an advantage. It facilitated our provinces in finding their feet as they drew confidence from competing relatively successfully against the Welsh and Scots and struggling only against the French.

In those early years the provinces continuously lost players to English clubs, a trend which wasn’t arrested until Ulster’s breakthrough victory in 1999 showed what was possible at home. This was a time too when the internal tensions within the English and French structures played into our hands.

The clubs and unions in those countries are yet to resolve their differences. In fact, I expect those divisions to deepen in the coming years in a relationship akin to the major powers of European club soccer and the national teams and governing bodies. A new breed of owner has seen the clubs find new strength in recent seasons.

Private investment and the broadcasters’ gold-dust that is live sport is now bringing rugby down the road taken by European soccer. Cash is king and big money, and major consumer markets, dominate professional sport.

Ireland, Scotland, and Wales struggle to compete with the product offered by the English and French leagues without a consumer base of sufficient scale to warrant major investment. This is the stark commercial reality currently facing our franchises.

After 20 years professional rugby is now big business. Like it or not, the resources of private backers and commercial corporations dominate. We don’t have access to those resources, nor are we likely to as long as our game remains structured as it is.

We’ll never be awash with money from broadcasters due to our non-viability as a market, but the option of attracting some private investment into the game in an organised and controlled manner is realistic, and may well be a necessity if the IRFU wish the provinces to remain competitive in the longer-term.

The so-called gear allowance in 1995 marked the beginning of our response to events elsewhere — a response which even overtook our competitors for a few glorious years. Twenty years on, a new approach is undoubtedly required, we are, after all, playing a totally different game.

For the record, the Leinster team in Milan was: Conor O’Shea; Paddy Gavin, Vinny Cunningham, Kurt McQuilkin, Niall Woods; Alan McGowan, Allain Rolland; Henry Hurley, Shane Byrne, Paul Wallace; Brian Rigney, Malcolm O’Kelly; Chris Pim (capt), Dean Oswald, Victor Costello.

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