Jim Glennon: Elitist club structures must be abolished for game to progress
Change in the club game has been a constant in recent years, something which the clubs have become accustomed to. However, rugby in Ireland has now reached the point where meaningful and progressive change is needed, so long as it has broad agreement.
I wrote last week of the struggles facing club rugby, primarily at league level, and of how the IRFU, the collective of clubs on the island, have struggled consistently to develop a clear vision for the future of those constituent clubs.
Much of my focus last week was on the structure, and the possible re-structure, of the bloated 50-strong senior club league and it was encouraging to receive plenty of reaction from club members across the country, almost entirely supportive, it should be said too.
Our sport, in its widest sense, is developing rapidly and expanding its reach throughout Ireland to the extent that the challenge in that new, wider context is how best to capitalise and encourage further that development in a fair and equitable manner reflective of this new reality, while at the same time retaining most, if not all, of the game's traditions.
Senior status, for example, is an issue. In the modern era, one would have thought that a club is a club is a club - except that it's not. One might say that there are senior, intermediate and junior grades in GAA but the grading relates only to the level of competition in which a club's primary adult team competes and has no further ramifications or perks for the clubs concerned.
Senior rugby clubs, on the other hand, enjoy an altogether different status in comparison. They control, almost exclusively, the administration of the game at provincial and national levels. Each senior club has a vote and representation at provincial branch level, with junior clubs grouped by region, each region having one vote, equivalent to the voting power of a single senior club.
Apart from that important democratic deficit in the basics of one club equalling one vote, other elements of the scales are tipped in the senior clubs' favour.
International ticket allocation, a trivial topic perhaps to the casual observer, is largely status-based, with the elite clubs receiving the largest allocations; but the practice of clubs cashing-in on their allocation, or at least a portion of it, by offloading at a profit to external sponsors of one type or another, is a long-established source of funding. A club's allocation of international tickets can, and does, provide competitive advantages to the elite, even if the practice is outlawed by the IRFU. Much like concerns around player payments, it is difficult to police. Isn't it an irony that one outlawed practice might occasionally fund the other?
The senior/junior demarcation dates back to the sport's early years. The easiest comparison to draw with the historical system, whereby only the senior clubs themselves held the power to grant ascension to their own ranks, is with international cricket and their current two-tier structure of Test and Associate nations. It's widely accepted that, for the development of cricket, the abolition of this elitist structure is a no-brainer. It now appears that a similar movement may well be emerging in Irish club rugby.
I've written already of the potential for consolidation of the top two tiers of the league into a semi-professional buffer between the amateur game and the professional franchises, with clubs below this level returning to provincial or regional competition. Such a structure would do away with the modern-day anachronism that is the distinction between senior and junior. Unlike the past, when the game was the winter pastime of the privately-educated middle and upper classes of the major cities, the fundamental divide in the game nowadays is between professional and amateur, rather than senior and junior.
The landscape of the sport has changed immeasurably and with clubs developing in places like Clifden, Chorca Dhuibhne, Moate and Letterkenny, the sport has blossomed far beyond its traditional strongholds.
In the face of such growth, and indeed the rapid development of the women's game, a governance structure based on the competitive strength of the men's first team in a club is no longer tenable.
A move to a semi-professional competition for the top 10 or 20, with regional rugby for the remainder, would not only reflect the new reality of the amateur-professional divide but would also put clubs on an equal footing.
Resistance from the 'haves' to a dilution of the trappings of their senior status as the price of the continued development of the game nationally is to be expected but change is undoubtedly required.
The landscape of the global professional game has shifted irrevocably in favour of a well-resourced minority to the detriment of the vast majority, and therein lies a lesson for us all. If the game in Ireland is to derive a sustained benefit from its recent successes, a fundamental recalibration of its structures is necessary to ensure a union of clubs reflective of the wider rugby community of today and of the future, rather than a further consolidation of its traditional power bases of the past.
Sunday Indo Sport