Wednesday 23 January 2019

Brendan Fanning: Bastions of old order being eclipsed as rugby map rewrites itself

Ex-IRFU president Louis Magee is a Bective man. Photo: Sportsfile
Ex-IRFU president Louis Magee is a Bective man. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Club rugby doesn't get the love it once received from the fourth estate, so it's unlikely the goings-on in Donnybrook yesterday made it on to too many sports pages this morning. Whatever space was on offer was devoted to the action at the top of Division 1A, not the tail end of Division 2C, the fifth tier of the All Ireland League.

For the record, Bective Rangers started the day beyond help, bottom of the heap. So for a while now they have been contemplating what next season will be like as a junior club.

When this competition kicked off in 1990/91, it was after a long and self-centred process where clubs batted back and forth the idea of a national assembly while always keeping their eye on the ball: senior status. That relegation stuff was toxic. So given a choice between potential nuclear rain and a safe bed in dull lodgings there was no choice to be made.

Only when the IRFU got off the pot and told those who were dithering to actually fill out the application form, or step aside, were minds straightened out a bit. Senior status was still a badge of honour, however. Access to international match tickets was a big part of it, but even without that there was an enduring pecking order and clubs latched themselves to it like limpets.

Nowadays qualification for the All-Ireland League affords you that standing with what seems like less fuss. And as the league has twisted and turned and been bent all out of whack over its 19 seasons, a clatter of juniors are now seniors. That has been one of its best features.

Going to the start line yesterday for the last round in Division 2C, eight of those 10 clubs have arrived there from previously uncharted waters. Running up through the divisions, another 10 clubs have done the same thing, with Buccaneers - a merger of Ballinasloe (junior) and Athlone (senior) - representing the group in the top flight. Yesterday was their last day there, for the moment.

Meanwhile in Donnybrook, Bective were going south. A few elements will have increased their pain. One is staring at them from the other end of the 4G pitch in the shape of the new clubhouse of their neighbours Old Wesley, who are in relatively good nick. Their traditional support from the Protestant side of the house continues, and despite falling well short of a planned top-four finish in Division 1B this season it's hard to see them in the sort of trouble Bective have on their hands.

Another element was even closer at hand yesterday: Bective's opponents, Malahide. When Bective was founded in 1881 Malahide was somewhere unexplored out in the north county. They are a classic example of the new order: a thriving club with a bustling community on its doorstep, and with fine facilities to attract the locals. When you match ambition with human and financial resources then the ladder is there to be climbed. As Malahide have clambered out of the backwater of Leinster junior rugby, Bective have gradually been slipping into it.

In which case a solid history of providing players for Ireland and presidents for the IRFU - 55 and five respectively, with Louis Magee the most recent - doesn't count for much. Of the 19 clubs who made up the two national divisions in 1990/91, two are off the map in junior ranks - Instonians and CIYMS - and two others - Athlone and NIFC - merged with neighbours.

If you look at how the rugby map has changed the one part of it that has, naturally enough, been hardest to recast has been the top flight. Since the turn of the century only Carlow and Ballynahinch have cracked the nut of going from single-cell junior clubs to senior status in the top division - in Carlow's case it helped that the size of that top section lurched ludicrously between 14 and 16 clubs when the IRFU's dementia was at its worst.

For Bective Rangers it remains to be seen how they will react. There are a lot of moving parts in putting together a functional AIL club, and keeping them oiled ain't cheap. But then they already know that. Good luck to them.

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