Friday 19 October 2018

Brendan Fanning: Schools game a live issue but it will never be the be-all and end-all

Ruadhan Byron of Belvedere College is tackled by Jay Barron, left, and Jody Booth of St Michael's College during the Bank of Ireland Leinster Schools Senior Cup semi-final match between St. Michael's College and Belvedere College at Donnybrook Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruadhan Byron of Belvedere College is tackled by Jay Barron, left, and Jody Booth of St Michael's College during the Bank of Ireland Leinster Schools Senior Cup semi-final match between St. Michael's College and Belvedere College at Donnybrook Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If you were not tuned in to the events at Donnybrook last Wednesday then you missed a genuine classic. No rugby competition on planet earth takes itself more seriously than the Leinster Schools Senior Cup, but what Belvedere and St Michael's served up genuinely was astonishing.

With 11 minutes left St Michael's, the clear tournament favourites, were 19-3 ahead and seemingly safe. They had been, by a distance, the better side. If you were to pick the best 15 from the 30 lads who started then Belvedere would have been lucky to get five names on the team-sheet. And yet they won.

Their fullback, David Lacey, was at the head of the charge that saved the game. A talented footballer, it was his try that started the ball rolling. At the time we were hollering at him to hurry up and get the ball down - we're biased on this - but his laid-back nature extended to the process of getting over the line and grounding the ball.

The first alarm bell came in the speed with which St Michael's scrumhalf Rob Gilsenan turned and looked towards the referee Paul Haycock.

Immediately you inferred that all might not be right with the grounding. It wasn't clear if the referee consulted his assistant. The try stood.

Subsequent photographic evidence suggested it shouldn't have. And this gave rise to questions last week that if the game is being broadcast live on television then it's a small step to employ a TMO. If they use one for the final, why not the semis as well?

"With so much at stake Leinster Rugby should invest in one," one man suggested to us.

It's interesting that he should have raised the issue of the game's importance. Schools rugby is sometimes presented as sport at its purest: young lads giving it everything, not for payment, but for the glory of the team and the school. In fact, at the top end it's a mirror of the professional game, and while players are not paid, both Leinster and Munster have legislated to prevent poaching. It's a serious business.

Given the investment made by the top schools in coaching, strength and conditioning, medical support, video analysis and travel, it's hardly a quantum leap to want a TMO as part of the live television package.

Eir Sport, who broadcast the tournament, may have a different view. They have the rights to the schools competitions in Munster, Leinster and Connacht, but it's only in Leinster that you get live broadcasts outside of finals day.

They were unavailable for comment last week but we're going to take a wild stab here and guess that they hope the mammies and daddies of the featured schools will fork out for a broadband package on top of the subscription to their sports channels.

Evidently they don't invest a whole lot on their match-day production. There is an argument to be made that in fact they damage their brand by doing a half-assed job on schools rugby but you'd need to know the figures involved to see if it's a worthwhile return. Given the shoestring that ties this together, the prospect of upgrading to facilitate a TMO is unlikely.

For a start, they would need cameras in each corner where currently they don't even have them at either end. Plus the communications system for the TMO in his little truck.

For a Pro14 set-up you're talking between seven and nine cameras as well as all the bells and whistles, which would set you back circa €25k-30k.

That won't be happening lads. And while schools rugby is a significant earner for Leinster, there is an argument that extending the investment in technology beyond St Patrick's Day only ramps up the importance of an event that already is laden with pressure.

We saw first-hand the effect of that pressure last week. With a view to releasing it, surely it makes sense to reassure players in advance that if they end up on the losing team the sun will still rise the next morning, they will still have the love and support of family and friends, and they might even learn useful lessons from the experience.

Schools rugby is not the end of their careers. Rather it should be the beginning.

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