This weekend across the country the opening round of the Ulster Bank League - still known to most as the AIL - got underway. It never takes too long for this competition to change shape in some form. Sometimes it has been for the good, and this season there are probably more people in favour of the return to the top four play-offs. Over the years, however, no matter what limb has been added or lopped off, the idea has become further entrenched higher up the clubs' food chain that for the IRFU this is an exercise in containment.
The latest instance of this comes in new regulations regarding payments to players. You'll remember that when the game went professional in 1995 it caught many north of the equator with their drawers down. Closer to home that state of undress was more buck naked than missing your keks.
In the days of amateurism the Scots and ourselves were the most devout pursuers of that losing cause, which is not to say that there weren't sinners in these parts. Rather, business in Irish club rugby was done below the line. Typically inducements involved jobs or cars, or, if you were very lucky, both.
Once the game went professional at the elite end of the market the IRFU reckoned it made no sense to legislate for it being something different at the butt end, and so money started filtering onto the table rather than underneath it.
This was something the union found distasteful, but they had little choice. By then the AIL, after a whole heap of procrastination on the part of the clubs, was six years formed, and had turbo-charged the game in Ireland. Suddenly clubs who met rarely, or not at all, simply because they were in different provinces, were not just playing each other but competing for points in Ireland's first national league. The rugby was often risk-free and not great for skill development, but mostly it was intense and compelling.
It attracted sponsors and supporters and acres of press coverage. There was money splashing about the place. It took a while for the locals, and not just antipodean imports, to get wet, and, hey presto, they liked the feel of it. The issue of payments to players, and indeed the amount spent on running rugby in any club, was never far off the agenda. When the madness of the Celtic Tiger was replaced by the horrible hangover of the recession it moved higher up that to-do list.
The momentum initially came from former international Fergus Slattery three years ago when he started a campaign to have the money taken out of the game. He lobbied the IRFU, who set up a sub-committee, the Fair Play working party, and against a backdrop of €25m accumulated debt across 206 clubs affiliated to the union, you could see where this was going. Nobody established a link between that debt and the payments to players, however. Did anyone go out of business because of bungs?
Sure enough the destination was in this current legislation to preclude payments to players, other than for vouched expenses directly related to training or playing. Interestingly the three men most readily associated with the journey - Slattery (Blackrock), Billy Glynn (Galwegians) and Ian McIlrath (Ballymena) - are from clubs that have been outside the top flight since 2012, 2008 and 2009 respectively. Glynn, who was president of the union in 2012/'13, conducted a tour of the country during his year of office to test the water. For many, he says, they reckoned the product had been polluted, and wanted it cleansed.
"I spoke to a lot of people who had great enthusiasm for bringing the matter under control," he said last week. "I'm an advocate of no payment to players and instead to divert that money into coaching and fitness and making coaching a viable employment opportunity in Ireland. People said they didn't have the money for coaches, but they did for players."
Glynn's ideal is picture perfect, albeit not on Planet Earth. The practice of incentivising players goes back at least to the late 1970s. All that has changed is the currency. The advent of the AIL in 1990 shifted it up a gear, and for a while it got out of control. What we have had in the last few seasons, however, is a small group of clubs around the country who are run well enough financially to sustain payments to players, whether that money comes from within the club itself or from an outside source from whom the cash is, unfortunately, freed up only for recruitment. Ask the same man for a few bob to fix the cistern in the jacks in the away dressing-room and he will probably keep on walking. Point out a potential recruit from that same dressing-room and he stops to listen.
There isn't a club treasurer in the country who wants it this way. Typically at the height of the good times players in the top division were being paid €50 per match point. So, with a win bonus you trousered €250. If you had been bunged in the first place to sign for the club - and lots were, for sums allegedly ranging from €1,000 to €10,000 - then it was all gravy.
In May of this year IRFU chief executive Philip Browne wrote to the clubs sketching the shape of the new landscape.
"Clubs are reminded that they should not engage in any arrangements or contractual agreements which will prevent them from complying with these regulations," Browne wrote. "This applies to players moving from school to club and from club to club transfers. Any breaches of this regulation will result in the player, club or relevant person being subject to the appropriate sanction or penalties, which can include but is not limited to a fine, suspension from the game, expulsion of the team from the league and/or deduction of league points."
Heavy stuff. The exact weight of it depends on the political will in Lansdowne Road to carry out a plan hatched by a few, but recognised by many as being optical. Will the watchdogs, for example, descend on a club and compel the secretary and chairman of rugby to account for their actions? Will players be asked to sign affidavits when they declare they have not been paid? Eh, we think not, because the banks are already doing the union's work for them: those who can't pay won't be given a chequebook. And how much will it cost to run the Club Affairs Committee who will oversee the legislation? When the nuts and bolts of this were being put in place someone suggested that €300k would be an appropriate figure to give the watchdog some bite to match its bark. You can imagine how that went down.
We suspect there are enough people in Lansdowne Road who realise that this is a waste of time and energy and probably money, depending on how much the union is prepared to spend on the irony of trying to stop the clubs from spending. Also there is a realisation that those beating the drums of prohibition are driven by the fact that they are not at the top table. It's like a bunch of folks looking in the window on a cold night at others around the fire. They have no interest in warming their hands. Rather they'd like the fire put out and the others to join them outside, thanks very much.
If the IRFU want to do something useful for the club game then let those who are happy to chill in the provinces do just that, and those who want to be a part of a level of rugby with some relevance to the pro game do their own thing. Moreover they could look at the lopsided playing pitch that obtains now in the game of player retention and recruitment. For example, you nurture a player through minis and youths, battling to keep him onside despite the oppressive and often arrogant presence of his school, and with the finish line in sight a university waves a sports scholarship under his nose. And the union rules preclude you from responding? Where is the fairness in that? The fight for horseflesh is with the colts.
We wouldn't be putting the Scots forward as the ideal template in rugby, but even they are planning a semi-pro club league to support the professional game in 2015/'16. Meantime in Ireland a witch hunt is about to get underway. The quality of rugby on offer now in our club game has never been higher. Don't tear the backside out of it to appease those who are not able to keep up.
Sunday Indo Sport