Saturday 24 March 2018

Brendan Fanning: Fixture logjam sums up failed IRFU strategy

'Scheduling the league semi-finals in the immediate shadow of the B&I final is the equivalent of the IRFU taking the money and running away'. Stock photo: Sportsfile
'Scheduling the league semi-finals in the immediate shadow of the B&I final is the equivalent of the IRFU taking the money and running away'. Stock photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It was a bit like the halcyon days of the AIL here last week: two Munster clubs preparing for the spin up to Dublin to assert their position in the rugby hierarchy, and give vent to their anger. As Anthony Foley described in some detail in Axel, his autobiography, the bitter pill is part of the diet in that part of the world.

The following passage got to the heart of the issue, as he recalled his time on the inter-pro under 20 side. "Dan (Mooney, the Munster under 20 coach) is pure Young Munsters, and probably drinks in Charlie St George's across from the train station in Limerick, but when he was in charge of that 20s team he was pure Munster. His big thing was bitterness and pride. He always felt you should be proud of where you come from and who you represent, but have that bit of bitterness, a bit of dog in you, a chip on the shoulder. You have to want something more than the opposition want it, and be ruthless."

That motivational tool wasn't reserved only for the inter-pro side, rather it was used to dig holes for a fair few Leinster clubs when the All-Ireland League was rolled out in 1990. We remember well the whiff of - initially - disdain, which turned to alarm around Lansdowne Road when on the opening day Garryowen set about Wanderers like a wolf pack. That set the tone for the next 10 years.

Munsters too did their fair share of damage in that period when you had to be from either Limerick or Cork to get in on the act. It is a different landscape now. And ironically it is in the current climate, when the rugby is actually of a higher standard than the well-attended heyday, that the competition is most in need of support.

Young Munster were at pains to point out that absence from the IRFU in the circumstances surrounding today's league semi-finals. They are away to Clontarf and Cork Con are in Lansdowne, both at 2.30 with Leinster on TV at 3.0, and with both of the travelling clubs affected by a higher calling: Munsters had four players in the starting line-up for Munster 'A' v Jersey in the B&I Cup final on Friday; Cons had two on the bench and one in the starting side.

Neither should be happy about this fixture clash, and understandably Munsters' hump is greater. Their secretary Brendan Collopy contacted this office to that effect last week. He was subsequently quoted, in the Irish Examiner, as follows: "We have been informed that under IRFU player welfare policy, no player will be allowed to double up on Friday night and Sunday. We are having to field a totally weakened team, which shows a total disregard for the league and the club game in general. It also, we believe, shows a total disregard to the sponsors Ulster Bank who would get a much higher coverage if it wasn't clashing with so many other rugby events."

First, the welfare policy. While the practice is for players not to double up in such a short space of time, we are unaware of any specific All-Ireland League regulation to this effect. In those circumstances it is hard to imagine head office getting on the phone if the clubs throw everyone involved into action over the two semis.

Second, the sponsor. Collopy is right: scheduling the league semi-finals in the immediate shadow of the B&I final is the equivalent of the IRFU taking the money and running away. It is hard to imagine Ulster Bank jumping up and down however, for they have long been parting with a significant wedge for this competition, but getting very little bang for their buck. Any successful sponsorship relies on below-the-line activity as much as what you see on the surface, and by any standards there hasn't been a lot of that.

Naturally enough, the IRFU have been getting it in the neck over the logjam. This has been unfortunate for staff who have been trying in good faith to shift the goalposts, knowing that they were already set deep: hard to see any of the clubs accommodating each other on kick-off times, never mind dates, when at this point in the season the sole criterion is what best suits yourself and least suits your opponent.

In the flak that has been flying however it has been instructive to note how much of it has sailed past the source of the storm. In season 2008/'09, the IRFU, out of the blue, waded into the fixture list with 10 "'A' inter-pros." At the time we rang then union rugby director Eddie Wigglesworth to whinge about the inevitable impact on the club game. Because they didn't clash directly with AIL matches, he claimed it would be grand. It was like being told the monsoon will abate at 4.0, so the pitch should be dry as a bone by 4.05.

It was a strategic decision by the IRFU to gainfully occupy contracted players not getting a look-in to Celtic Rugby. Since then there have been any number of choreographed quotes about the value of the competition. They have been about as convincing as Eddie's weather forecasts.

The value of the B&I Cup is best summed up by the rigour it imposes on players: sometimes they have to pack jammies and toothbrushes and fetch up on time for a bus to an airport. Life skills.

Ireland's involvement in this crock has only one year left to run. At that point we're hoping IRFU performance director David Nucifora will choose the club game to develop our next crop of professionals. By all means run a home and away inter-pro series at 'A' level, but let the clubs do what they have sustained despite the interference: produce quality rugby from players who understand who they represent. The only bitter pill is having to swallow repeatedly a strategy that patently has failed.

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