Wednesday 19 December 2018

Alan Quinlan: It's impossible to put a price on playing for your province

Peter O'Mahony is a proud Munster man
Peter O'Mahony is a proud Munster man

Alan Quinlan

You never had to explain what it meant - one look around the dressing-room told you everything you needed to know. Impassioned faces from across the province, from Cashel to Clonlara, were well prepared for another huge encounter.

Those four walls mostly contained proud Munster men and those from outside the province just needed to spend a few days in our company to understand our identity and how important it was. We were Munster men - playing for our friends, our families, our people.

That parochial pride is impossible to replicate. There are some things in life that money can't buy.

Nowadays you have scores of young guys in academies who grew up supporting their side in Dublin, Limerick, Galway or Belfast, dreaming of playing at that level. Playing for your province has become such a representative honour.

When you look at someone like Peter O'Mahony, you see a Munster man first and foremost, and only then you may see him as an Ireland international and a Lions captain. He epitomises that whole Munster culture and steely attitude. He understands what it's all about and makes sure those around him get it too.

Of course he could have gone abroad for a few years and earned some extra coin, but would a win for Montpellier in Europe be as satisfying as one for Munster? Would it bring such joy to the people in his life?

Tadhg Furlong is another man who could probably at least double his wages on foreign shores, especially now he is probably the best tighthead in the world, and in such a wise-man's game at only 25 years of age. But he has such a strong connection to Leinster. He's a proud Wexford man, loves playing for his province and probably feels a bit indebted to the place for helping him become such a colossus in such a short space of time.

The nature of professionalism - and the relative uncertain length of rugby careers - is bound to increase selfishness at the expense of loyalty, but the nature of our provincial sides keeps the connection between club and player sacred. There are still traditional clubs in England but the crazy cash flow is starting to blur the lines between supporters and the 15 on the field. Thankfully, that has not become the case in Ireland.

Tadhg Furlong, like many Irish players, enjoys a strong connection to his native province. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong, like many Irish players, enjoys a strong connection to his native province. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

When I look back at the Leicester team of 2002 that beat us in the Heineken Cup final, the majority of them were home-grown Tigers. They weren't too unlike us in style and tradition, the club had been a big part of their lives and would be even after they hung up the boots. I'm not sure that's still the case.

The last few weeks have been incredibly positive from an Irish perspective and just two years on from what seemed to be a time of crisis for our provinces in Europe, we can take reassurance from the knowledge that we have a model for professional rugby in this country that is not only sustainable, but also allows our provinces to be competitive even against the mega-rich sides from England and France.

The clean sweep of wins in the back-to-back rounds was not just a success in terms of putting our teams in good positions to play knockout rugby, but a victory for the structures that we have in place.

Any time the provinces have an impressive collective run on the continent you can set your watch to the complaints from England and France about how the Irish sides can rest their players during the season and keep them fresh for Europe, but it's a weak argument.

Let's not forget that the astronomical budgets the top clubs in England and France have allows them to have huge squads full of international players, that can also comfortably - and successfully - operate with a rotation policy.

What should be of greater concern to our Gallic cousins and neighbours across the pond, however, is whether they will be able to prop up their professional games with mounds of cash in the long-term, because the manner in which they are burning through cash is already setting off smoke alarms.

Graham Simmons, a colleague of mine at Sky Sports, wrote an excellent piece earlier this year highlighting the extraordinary loss-making ventures that many of the clubs in the English Premiership currently find themselves on.

Ten of the top tier's 12 teams were in the red last year as the league racked up a collective loss of £20 million (€22.5m), a 33pc increase on the figures from the previous financial year.

Among the biggest culprits for the imbalance are traditional powers such as Wasps (£3.8m), Harlequins (£2.2m) and Bath (£1.2m) but consistently the market leaders of this spendthrift culture are Saracens, who lost £3.3m last year and have dropped more than £45m over the last decade.

The back-to-back European champions may be succeeding on the field at the moment but their financial woes could cause them to completely unravel down the line, and where would that leave the fans that they are playing for?

While our budgets are smaller, and we may be at risk of losing some of our better players to big-spending overseas clubs, our system is sustainable, encourages loyalty, and, crucially, is also reaping rewards on the field.

One aspect of our provincial structures that has really shone in recent weeks is the depth that is being developed across the country, and the importance of keeping our players in the system, even if that means they have to switch provinces to get more game-time.

Dubliners Ian Keatley and John Cooney both sought a new challenge at Connacht following spells at Leinster, only to eventually move on to a third province where they have since found themselves playing starring roles in Champions Cup successes.

The development of both players has been a credit to all of the provinces they have played at and is another reminder that players remain the most valuable commodity in this country.

We will see quite a bit of rotation from the provinces over the hectic festive period, and while it may drain some of the buzz around the interprovincial fixtures, it is not an alien concept to the fine diners of European rugby and is a necessary way of managing a busy run of fixtures.

Granted, in England and France the threat of relegation, and missing a slice of the broadcast deals, among other offerings, is a major fear but the numbers still don't add up.

And I suspect the owners still understand the importance of maintaining an identity as a club rather than a franchise, the game isn't that far removed from those who follow it.

In the long-run I'd like to see the Premiership mix with the PRO14 across a couple of divisions with relegation a risk for everyone.

It might just restore some of the old rivalries - and generate some new ones - too. In this day and age that would only be a good thing for all concerned.

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