Thursday 12 December 2019

Jim Glennon: Our neglected amateur league is dying and needs resuscitation

Munster temporary consultant Andy Farrell. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile
Munster temporary consultant Andy Farrell. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile

Jim Glennon

The woes of Munster dominated the airwaves and column inches this past week despite all that's going on in all of the provinces, including much speculation around individual contract negotiations with Martin Moore reportedly on the verge of signing for Wasps.

The post-mortem from the defeat in Paris last Saturday and the appointment of Andy Farrell as a part-time 'consultant', not to mention Anthony Foley's post-match comments, have all put Munster front and centre of the rugby agenda.

One striking aspect of the analysis of Munster's predicament, both as a professional entity and in terms of the general quality of the rugby played across the province at club level, has been the multiplicity of references to the All-Ireland League.

It seems a long time ago now but for over a decade from 2000 onwards Munster were one of the most feared teams in Europe, competing consistently for top honours and driven by a cohort of local players who had cut their teeth in the All-Ireland League.

For some, a return to that nursery for their professional players - academy and fringe senior squad - is one possible solution to some of the province's problems. That however raises the question of whether the league in its current guise has the capacity to fulfil a worthwhile role in the current era.

Just because it worked 20 years ago doesn't mean it will work now. The club game has moved on and the league, neglected for too long, currently finds itself the focus of significant attention with moves afoot to restructure, yet again, to meet the needs of the amateur game.

What form such a restructuring would take is a matter of speculation, but the loudest whispers are around a couple of possible proposals, one of which is to establish northern and southern conferences - two regional leagues with national play-offs at season's end, and another is a simple return to four provincial leagues. No doubt there are other ideas too but, whatever emerges, major issues must be addressed before any new structure could be implemented.

While there are benefits attaching, senior status, and the quality of football, has been diminished in recent years with the expansion of the league to 50 teams. The packaging of the lower divisions as 2A, 2B, 2C is an implicit acknowledgement of this erosion. Division 5 just doesn't have the same ring to it as Division 2C.

In all amateur sporting matters, however, the players are the most important stakeholders. Across the divisions, the commitment required of them is substantial. The year-round demands of strength and conditioning, pitch sessions, match preparation, travel, and recovery are immense. When these are added to work, study, family pressures, and the risk of injury, players are indeed as worthy of commendation as consultation. It would be a grave error were the issue to be decided without their input, for a whole range of reasons - travel demands, as an example, are a particularly topical issue at a time when falling participation levels at adult level are an issue across the country.

Player consultation must be a central tenet of any move towards a new structure, and the needs of the amateur must take priority over those of the professional. For too long, like their GAA counterparts, the club player has been ignored.

Under-used and injury-recovering provincial academy and senior squad members do need to see action, but the manner of their allocation amongst the clubs and their occasional participation in amateur competitions are major bones of contention that require careful and urgent attention.

The administration of any new structures, whether by the provincial branches or by the Union centrally, would also be an issue as would the requirement for a semi-professional buffer zone between the amateur and professional arms of the sport. Many, including the IRFU's High Performance Unit under David Nucifora, appear to favour a structure which would concentrate emerging uncontracted talent while also accommodating contracted and academy players in need of game-time.

There is an argument that the top two divisions already perform that function and while it would certainly be welcomed by the cohort of clubs currently comprising Division 1A it would be bound to court controversy around the questions of promotion and relegation and also the balance of provincial representation, given the recent dominance of Leinster clubs.

At this point, there are many more questions than answers and uncertainty is rampant; the only certainty being that change is necessary and apparently imminent, major change which will redefine the landscape of Irish club rugby for years to come.

The All-Ireland League in its current guise is in the throes of a slow and painful death, sadly bringing with it many of the game's defining values. It should be put out of its misery and as many as possible of those values salvaged.

Those in authority must tread carefully however, mindful that the game remains, at its core, a recreational pastime for amateur players who must always be the primary consideration in any change process.

It's time for leadership, common sense and the greater good to prevail - pandering to sectoral vested interests is no longer a viable option.

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