Saturday 20 January 2018

Wages of sin deliver debt and trouble to overspending clubs

Payments to players have created a mess for clubs that is only now being addressed, says Brendan Fanning

Slattery's own club, Blackrock, have acute strains on their financial and human resources, owing in excess of €1m, and being unable to field competitively at junior one and junior two levels in Leinster this season
Slattery's own club, Blackrock, have acute strains on their financial and human resources, owing in excess of €1m, and being unable to field competitively at junior one and junior two levels in Leinster this season

Towards the end of the media launch of this weekend's Heineken Cup, Brian McLaughlin was asked about continuing the good job Ulster were doing in developing young home-grown backs.

Maybe it was because he was tired, or perhaps it's because it doesn't take much to get his back up, but there followed a brief explosion on the issue of getting game time for his players in an All-Ireland League that had too many restrictions on the pros taking part.

We felt his pain, for the increased separation of provincial and club rugby is good for neither. And also we thought of what has been going on in the background, a movement that aims to park the clubs in a different jurisdiction altogether, leaving only a handful playing national rugby and aspiring to have any relevance to the professional game.

Fergus Slattery is at the heart of this movement. A world-class flanker in his day, he now has a vision of the future based on his perception of the past. Two months ago in the D4 Hotel, he addressed a gathering of representatives from Leinster clubs on the issue of a way forward. As this plan has yet to be finalised, he doesn't want to be quoted on its content.

Our understanding of its direction is that it involves a remapping of the club game from school to club, a sea change in emphasis towards rugby solely as a leisure pursuit. At its core is the desire to take cash out of the equation. All over the country clubs are in serious financial trouble. Slattery's own club, Blackrock, have acute strains on their financial and human resources, owing in excess of €1m, and are unable to field competitively at junior one and junior two levels in Leinster this season.

Reaction to the plan varies from scepticism to wholehearted support. It is understood that in the latter category Terenure will emerge soon as a driving force for change, nominating that clubs who want a new order should adopt a charter of amateurism. And that those who sign up should play among themselves and the rest could do something else. Again, as the charter is a few weeks away from dotting I's and crossing T's, on-the-record comment is not forthcoming.

Whatever, the mood among those wanting change is clear: they have had enough. Enough of seeing kids coming out of school with a sense of entitlement, enough of other kids deserting their home club because of inducement, enough of seeing once-busy club bars reduced to scenes from an abandoned movie set. It is important to recognise that there are no innocents in this.

By way of illustrating the lunacy that drives recruitment at under 20 (now under 21) level, two summers ago we came across a young fella, an average player, who was a year out of a middle-order rugby school, and had signed up for 20s rugby with a Division 2 club. Why did he choose that club, who had neither a record nor any prospect of success? Because they were paying him €1,000. He was a student. A very contented student. Although he was pleasantly surprised that a club would want to pay for his services, plenty of his contemporaries came through the school gates with ideas of grandeur. Given the uber-serious approach taken by many schools to be the last men standing on St Patrick's Day, this is natural enough. You can't go from being a virtual pro, complete with privilege and status within the school, to the next rung on the ladder without wanting some more of the same.

The effect of all this has been to hobble some clubs. According to the IRFU, who don't release funds to clubs until they get a copy of the accounts, there are 13 clubs nationally with borrowings in excess of €400k, and not many ideas about paying it back. There are lots of reasons why clubs are in trouble but paying money they don't have to players who aren't worth it is high on the list.

This is what is driving the desire now for change. Or rather, to return to "the way we were" as one man puts it. And that's the problem with the Streisand Plan, for even Barbara could tell you that rugby has never been truly amateur.

At one point in the good old days the Dublin Insurances team lined out for a fixture against their Edinburgh counterparts with 12 Wanderers players in their ranks. This wasn't because Merrion Road was a natural mecca for those who loved nothing better than to talk risk and rugby in equal measure, rather it was because the club was powerfully connected in insurance and banking and used those connections to employ rugby players.

Lots of other clubs traded in the same currency: jobs. We're talking about periods in the 1970s and '80s when, as now, Ireland was a basket case. In trying to decide whether to stay or go the offer of a job was a game-changer.

This aggressive recruitment policy underpinned Wanderers' pre-eminent position by the time the All-Ireland League arrived in October 1990. Five years later the ground shifted when the game went open. Overnight, payment was something that had to be tolerated, and by the time the Celtic Tiger arrived there was so much money sloshing around Irish club rugby that it was like Las Vegas without the risk.

The IRFU regulated payments. Now a maximum of €64,000 can be paid in total to a squad (a max of €4,500 to any individual) and it's up to the club how they structure that payment.

In Donncha O'Callaghan's compelling new autobiography, he explains that when he made the breakthrough to the Cork Con squad the wedge was €200 per player for a league win, and nothing if they lost. Incidentally, he negotiated instead a payment of €50 per week regardless of the result, which seemed like good business when the team were struggling through the early part of the campaign. When the winning streak started -- they would go all the way to the title -- he tried to backtrack, whereupon he was told he had just learned a valuable life lesson in the importance of investing in your team-mates. No deal buddy!

The regulated payments are one thing; the initial inducements -- which are wholly illegal -- are another. In this area it is impossible to separate fact from fiction. Indeed one exit strategy is for the departing player to inflate the wedge he's receiving from his new club so as to make it an offer he couldn't refuse. In which case the blame shifts to the inducer, not the acceptor.

Last season one club chairman wrote to the IRFU to complain of a player being poached illegally. The union wrote to the alleged offending club, who promptly wrote back in high dudgeon, quoting the line: "Our club paid nothing."

And of course they didn't. The way it works is that a club member, or members, is prepared to open his wallet and do the deal privately. Unfortunately, it's a lot harder to get same member to open same wallet if the jacks is broken and the gates are falling off the hinges, but that's life.

In any case, between the real and the imaginary and the legal and the illegal the effect has put some clubs in deep trouble. On his current tour of the clubs of Ireland, the IRFU's Scott Walker is coming across lots of sob stories.

"A comment made to me was -- and he held up the strategy: 'When we put this strategy together we had to pay players to achieve the outcome, but we wouldn't do it when we achieved it,'" he says of one club. "'The problem is we've got there and the rot has set in. And we all think that the only way we can stay there is to continue paying players'."

Well, fancy that. The greatest trick of all is to get the genie back in the bottle. And no amount of revisionism will change that. Of those at the top end of Irish club rugby who continue to pay, they are paying less because the recession has taken much of the madness out of it. If they go to the wall because of it then they deserve to be there. Of those who want to pay no more, good luck to them, but they need to be careful about declaring who they will and won't play against.

"I know a lot of guys in rugby clubs who are just waiting for this to happen," says one of their number. "The big trigger is transparency in the Branch. The reason these guys are there is to promote rugby mar dhea but they all want to be president. It's the most political situation in the world. I see what goes on and we've got to have transparency so that when clubs actually want to do something it follows through."

What is clear is that the union won't want much to do with this. When the charter is finalised and nailed to the front door of every or any participating club they will nod and say it's a fine initiative, but if there is any suggestion of tampering with competition structures to reflect any brave new world, they will jump all over it. Which is not to say they are not worried.

"The big fear we have as a union in all of this is that the ethos, the philosophy, the network that sustains the game will break down because of the payment to players," says Eddie Wigglesworth, the IRFU's rugby director. "I think whether we like it or not the current economic situation is going to solve the problem for us because clubs by their own volition will not be able to pay the money."

It's simplistic to say that the recession will save us, and equally so to think that taking cash out of rugby will eliminate inducements with it. Meanwhile, Brian McLaughlin is wondering when he can get more of his young Ulster players an AIL game on a Saturday. It would be easier to satisfy his demands than revise our history.

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