Ewan MacKenna: Private schools and elite class culture is why rugby will never be embraced by country like the GAA
Back in December, having arrived early at Liberty Hall Theatre for the Second Captain's end-of-year gig, a running order appeared in the dressing room. On it, one name stood out, but for reasons other than his massive talent and glowing reputation. Headlining was Joey Carbery.
A few months earlier, his home club of Athy were less than happy with an article profiling their most skillful son. It had suggested it wasn't a typical place for a potentially world-class exponent of the sport to emerge from, as the town is far from affluent and typically GAA country. Then they became less happy again as it also alluded to his move to Blackrock College for his leaving cert.
Letters were sent. Words were had. Unpleasantness abounded.
That night you wanted to try and get some alone time but sadly Carbery left the auditorium almost as quickly as the stage as injury wasn't a chance for relaxation but an opening to pack his schedule with rehabilitation. There would be no pinning down his insight into the difference between all the fine graft and excellent work put in by a lower-level club, and what happens in a centre of excellence like the famed Dublin school. But it is clear there is a major difference, with fee-paying institutions like Castleknock having money for a full-time director of rugby.
One doesn't diminish the more noble efforts of the other given there'll never be the same recognition of work done down low, but one does dwarf the other in terms of resources and expertise. Just consider the letter a few years back from Clongowes coach Noel McNamara (now national under-20 coach) to a travel agent after his side of schoolkids who went to Portugal for warm-weather training.
"The hotel at Monte Gordo was excellent. It’s location near to the town, across from the beach and its proximity to the training facilities made it an ideal place to stay. The food was excellent, in particular the variety and the quality made it a lot easier to satisfy all pallets. The fact that there were only two players per room was much better than three to four and this made quality of sleep much better.”
Clongowes' price-tag of close to €19,500 per annum suddenly made a little more sense even if it didn't seem any less grotesque.
The idea of private schools in education is fundamentally wrong. Such places should be areas of equal opportunity, rather than dividing along old lines in order to keep a status quo based on past lineage. Old boys' clubs are bad enough in adult ranks without shunting their divisions onto youth. But this isn't about just that. Indeed there's nothing wrong with schools of sporting excellence, however rugby's are almost exclusively based on class. Historically the association made sense, but for that to continue in such a way is prejudiced. Sadly, while education is two-tiered, rugby plonks itself on the top tier, making dizzy heights almost exclusively the preserve of fortunate kids.
For a long time a handful of those schools have done enough in their production of players to keep Ireland competitive on the world stage. Taken alone it's some achievement. But their doing much right doesn't mean the IRFU is doing enough right. Instead it inhibits itself, cutting itself off from – ironically - a wealth of resources that could allow both provinces and national team to prosper more. Morally it's troubling, practically it's self-defeating. Rare do both align in elite sport that when they do you'd better listen, but Irish rugby has remained largely deaf to the screams of opportunity and inclusion.
Across the 2000s we were met with golden generations and superstar names and great ambassadors and much success, but how many children wanting to be like Brian O'Driscoll or Johnny Sexton actually can be? That's not a comment based on trying to match their talent alone, however those odds are long enough without multiplying them further by throwing a need for a lot of big financing into the mix. While it's true many clubs including Carbery's own Athy have attracted numbers at underage, in terms of high-end sport the idea still remains that if a child wants to be the next star, they'd better get lucky via a scholarship or they better come from serious money.
We've addressed this topic before but on such occasions were told the playing field was being altered. Is it though? You don't highlight a wrong and leave it be if not righted, thus we return to an unpleasant truth as for all the rhetoric, it still isn't lining up with reality.
The first time this column went down this alley was 2014. Ireland just won a nail-biter in Paris, to capture the Six Nations crown, but for many it was hard to buy into. The connection wasn't there in the same way as with GAA – or even club rugby for that matter – as they're intertwined with the local.
But for that game against France, of the 12 players educated in the Republic that started, 10 went to fee-paying schools. And of the seven on the bench, another five did likewise. It meant 79 per cent of our players were privileged to the point their sporting achievements were beyond the reach of almost all, even in modern Ireland.
It left a cold chill instead of what should've been great warmth.
Catching up with the times can be slow when you've let a fast-changing society get so far ahead of you, but when Joe Schmidt named his squad for this Six Nations, of 29 players educated in the south, 21 were again coming from fee-paying schools. That's 78 per cent, almost identical another generation on. But it comes as little surprise when you drop down the supply chain.
Of the 39 applicable players in the Leinster panel this season, 31 went to fee-paying schools. That's again 79 per cent, although down on the 2014 number of 85 per cent. Of the Munster squad however, the number is at 69 per cent (considering Kilkenny College was private when Robin Copeland attended), an increase of 11 per cent when contrasting with four years ago.
It's a troubling trend that applies to the academies too suggesting more of the same is on the way. For those teams, this season Leinster and Munster are at 86 per cent and 68 per cent respectively, up from 78 per cent and 56 per cent in 2014. As much as things change, here they remain the same.
In a state where the vast majority of children are educated publicly, it's clear there's a strong link between where you can afford to be taught rugby and how far you can make it in rugby. Of course there'll be exceptions like Tadhg Furlong and Ultan Dillane but the IRFU need to look more closely at the rule. Just take those great conveyor belts of Irish talent, the Leinster and Munster Schools Cups. With 16 teams in the former this campaign, you can guess what category 14 belong to, and that's leaving St Fintan's out where voluntary donations are expected. In Munster meanwhile half the schools in their junior and senior cups are fee-paying; in fact the ones that aren't are all in Limerick meaning it being a game of the people there and there alone isn't a stereotype but the truth.
What that leaves is Cork and Dublin where, in terms of the top of the pyramid, it's fair to call it a posh sport. It ought to have outgrown that by now but, while losing out on potential players, it also creates an image problem for many. TV numbers around big games might be good, but it's entertainment and not identity to many outside the bubble. What should they think when they see numbers like Christians Cork at around €4,000 a year; and Blackrock at around €6,900 a year; and Glenstal at around €12,000 a year; and quotes like this from Ken Whyte, former principal of Pres Cork, who said in 2013 of the then €3,500 fee there, "We should be delighted there are people out there who are taking their after-tax income and putting it into education as opposed to going on the beer or going on holiday"?
It's this absurd concept that rugby still tethers itself to, so is it any wonder many still stand off a little rather than embrace. As another Six Nations begins, we know that it's Ireland. But it's an Ireland we don't know.