Tuesday 25 June 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Give us your huddled masses and we'll find somewhere for them to play'


'Jack McGrath may be about to join the dispossessed masses who are moving across the world in search of a better life' Photo: Sportsfile
'Jack McGrath may be about to join the dispossessed masses who are moving across the world in search of a better life' Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Perhaps unbeknownst even to himself, the Leinster veteran, Ireland international and Lion Jack McGrath may be about to join the dispossessed masses who are moving across the world in search of a better life.

According to the United Nations' latest report, there are 244 million migrants on the planet; there are 22 million refugees and global displacement is at a record high of 44 million. Much of this movement, states the report, is "occurring due to conflict, persecution, environmental degradation and change, and a profound lack of human security and opportunity."

And now there is the alarming prospect that the wretched of the earth may be swollen in number by refugee players who are fleeing the tyranny, strife and poverty that are surprisingly endemic in Leinster Rugby. Seán O'Brien has already been granted asylum at London Irish RFC. And now it seems that McGrath might make the harrowing journey, by foot if necessary, and carrying only the clothes on his back, to the safe haven of Ulster Rugby in time for next season.

Leinster Rugby's CEO, Mick Dawson, last week bravely spoke out against this new phenomenon of human trafficking among players desperate to escape their slave labour conditions on the paddocks of Dublin 4. Players looking to move for "better opportunities" elsewhere was one thing. But, "What I don't want to see is forced migration. It's a risk and it's something we don't want to see."

It was precisely this kind of "forced migration" that saw Joey Carbery, for example, trafficked out of Leinster last summer and taken into the refugee camp of Munster where, much to everyone's relief, he was welcomed with open arms by the host population. Sometimes migrant stories can have happy endings.

But Mick Dawson can only be commended for his courage in denouncing the evil of "forced migration" in a rugby culture which people had hitherto assumed to be the last word in privilege and affluence. It just goes to show that there can be no room for complacency at any level of society. Carbery, O'Brien and McGrath are the Somali refugees of Donnybrook, Ballsbridge and other such leafy suburban glades. Latest reports, yet to be confirmed at time of writing, suggest that Trócaire have plans in motion to set up an emergency field hospital at the RDS. This nascent human rights crisis is also being monitored by Amnesty International. Crowd funding is already under way on social media to buy McGrath a good coat and a comfortable pair of walking shoes.

Dawson, again to his credit, did not confine his comments to the outward migration patterns of these unfortunate victims of Leinster Rugby. He also expressed his concern at the levels of internal displacement within the province. Promising young country players are being forced to leave behind their homesteads in the rural hinterlands and make their way to the capital to continue their apprenticeships in the trade. This is taking them right into the belly of the beast, where they are easy pickings for the ruthless traders in rugby flesh who may well decide to sell them on to the highest bidders elsewhere. And so the grim cycle continues.

With various human rights organisations now on the case, Leinster Rugby are planning to build holding camps, which they call centres of excellence, out in the boondocks. Carlow and Dundalk are being touted as possible locations. "We have a dual mandate," Mick told the Irish Independent. "It's not just Dublin-centric. We have 12 counties with development officers. We want to make sure that guys who are going to non-rugby playing schools and playing through the clubs and youth system, don't all the time have to travel to Dublin to get the extra coaching, the extra gym work that they need."

To help finance this regional infrastructure, money will be raised at a "celebration dinner" in May to mark the 10th anniversary of Leinster's first European Cup triumph in 2009. Tickets for a table of 10 will cost €2,900 or €4,500 or €7,500.

Coincidentally, on the same day that these plans were being announced last week, the FAI also revealed its new Club Ireland membership scheme which will sell three-year, five-year and ten-year premium season tickets for respectively €2,000, €3,000 and €5,000. So, for the price of one big feed for ten people at Leinster's celebration dinner, you can watch all the Republic of Ireland's international games for the next ten years.

As an indication of the contrasting economies in both sports, it is a pretty telling price comparison. The historical forced migration of our best young soccer players to England in search of a decent wage will continue for another while, by the looks of things. And of course most of them will be going young, without much of an education to fall back on.

Also last week, Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach, spoke in an interview about his years working in Ireland. Asked to compare the varying national traits he found between the countries, Gatland said: "The Irish players are the most vocal out of all the players. They ask the most questions, they challenge the most." As to why, he figured it was because most of them "have come through private schooling so they are pretty well educated and culturally, from that perspective, they are great to deal with. The Welsh players are not anywhere near as vocal. A lot of the Welsh contribute to the armed forces in the UK because they're doers and they are good at taking instructions and following orders. They will run through a brick wall if you ask them . . . (but) they don't question or challenge stuff."

Which, in a way, makes it all the more tragic that some of our best and brightest rugby players are being forced to wander the world, looking for sanctuary, among all the huddled poor and forsaken masses.

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