Rugby needs investment in clubs to compete on a level playing field
As we move seamlessly from a World Cup to a new European season, the continued pre-eminence of the fee-paying schools as feeders for our provincial academies and professional squads is back on the agenda.
The schools' system is by no means perfect, but the rugby-playing private schools can't be blamed for utilising their own resources as they do, in establishing sporting facilities. But the overall structure of our amateur club game, and particularly its resourcing at underage and adult levels, is in need of attention.
Since the emergence of professionalism the game has developed on a twin-track basis in all major rugby-playing nations - the elite professional game, in parallel with the amateur club game. Resources are heaped on the former while the latter, by comparison, is relatively overlooked.
As in all competitive sports, teenage players are screened, with the elite brought into the various development squads and the vast majority remaining with their school or club. In an ideal world, this development process would continue for all, whether with a representative squad or with the local club or school. Some will be early bloomers, others late developers, and another cohort entirely will be happy to simply play socially with their club. A thriving club scene is essential for the game as a whole, but especially so for the latter two groups, comprising as they do the game's bedrock here. We mustn't forget that, at its core, rugby is a recreational activity to be enjoyed.
KnockOn.ie has been a wonderful source of information and debate for the domestic scene for the best part of a decade. Sadly, it is no more. Rob Murphy did his beloved club game some considerable service over the years, not least in his final blog when he shone an interesting light on the IRFU's decreasing financial support for the grassroots.
He pointed out that for the six-year period from season 2009/'10 to 2014/'15 inclusive, the IRFU's annual income from all sources increased by 25 per cent (€59.2m to €74.1m), while annual funding for the professional game was cut in the same period by eight per cent (€35.1m to €32.4m), which may raise a few eyebrows. Disappointingly, annual spending on the amateur game, underage and adult, reduced during the same period by 20 per cent (€11.1m to €8.8m).
I don't have a particular issue with the spend on the professional game. The men's international team is the principal driver of revenue for the sport, financing all levels of activity, but the disproportionate decrease in funding for the domestic game is a massive disappointment.
There is an unhealthy sense of separation between local clubs and their governing bodies at provincial and national levels; the latter being perceived as tending towards aloofness and self-perpetuation - something of a democratic deficit, I'd suggest.
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And with a seemingly ever-increasing focus on elite player development, with funding increased by a massive 90 per cent over the same period (from €3.1m to €5.9m), the view can only grow that the clubs are the poor relations, sacrificed at the altar of expediency in favour of the four professional franchises.
The sport's recent development and popularisation in areas and demographics where it wouldn't have had a presence in the past is a welcome boost. I have seen this growth in my home town of Skerries, which is particularly encouraging in the context of the huge voluntary effort. All the more frustrating then to observe the dwindling financial support from the national governing body.
Research shows that changing societal and lifestyle trends are leading to a sustained decline in participation rates of non-elite adults in organised sport - another reason for the IRFU to prioritise the domestic game. The retention of players, at every level, from adolescence into adulthood, is more important than ever for the game's long-term sustainability.
The professional franchises rely on the domestic game for their raw material so the well-being of clubs is vital. Like most relationships, it's one of give and take and I'd suggest that it's time to rectify the obvious imbalance; three clubs reportedly unable to field recently in the last eight of a major national competition for junior clubs is more than enough evidence of the current situation.
An overhaul of how the game is coached and played is necessary so that we may compete, not so much with the likes of Australia and New Zealand every four years, but, more importantly, with the many competing activities locally every day. It starts at the clubs and schools, not at the provincial stadia and academies; is it too much to ask that the financial strategies of the IRFU reflect this reality?
Sunday Indo Sport