Wednesday 13 December 2017

Tony Ward: 'Calculator Day' still special as clubs take centre stage

Clontarf players celebrate their Ulster Bank League Division 1A triumph last year
Clontarf players celebrate their Ulster Bank League Division 1A triumph last year
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It's hard to believe I know, but there was a time when for rugby lovers the length and breadth of the land, this weekend represented 'Calculator Day'.

The excitement, the anticipation, the anxiety was palpable. And for those still in love with club rugby - and I am among their number - that is still very much the case.

So let me get a quick rant out of the way: the emphasis on academy inclusion (over a club process that should be central to the academy programme anyway) drives me insane.

Boys (the girls' game is not quite at that level yet) are being identified and screened through the underage system, specifically schools (where it is easier to monitor), earlier and earlier.

Is that a good thing? The answer is yes for the provinces and their developmental officers, but as someone who comes into contact directly with this screening process, it bothers me greatly.

Firstly the inability to differentiate between skill and size - and therefore potential - is scary.

It's like when I was in first year in school and the music teacher, who didn't even know our names at the time, got us one morning in early September to sing the musical scale do, re, mi, fa, so. . . I made it as far as 'do' and in that instant my singing career was over for life. David Partridge or a Bay City Roller I was not going to be!


The point is that at that age you just don't know - although, yes, I was born without a note in my head, so Fr Maiben did call the Ward 'audition' about right.

I can't say I was shattered, but at that age you just don't know.

The screening reports I read place major emphasis on size. Either at the time of the monitoring or a potential for growth highlighted, based on visual observation.

It is a haphazard system, leaving young boys - and we are talking Junior Cup cycle, ie third years and younger - either with an inflated perception of their playing worth or else the rugby equivalent of that feeling of musical uselessness I experienced way back when.

Of course I get the 'catch them early' principle. But in soccer, increasingly we are seeing players establishing themselves in the League of Ireland before even attempting the cross-water leap to full-time professionalism in England.

Professional rugby is in its infancy but the soccer parallel with AIL club rugby stands.

In the past few days we have seen Leinster announce the recruitment of Clontarf props Ian Hirst and Royce Burke-Flynn as cover for their Ireland contingent.

Matt O'Connor explained: "We have seen over the last few years just how productive the club game can be for us. Darragh Fanning has played 18 times for us this year, scoring six tries. Mick McGrath has played six matches with two tries to his name. It is an area that we are always looking at."

These are sentiments I echo, although I want to see the Leinster head coach back words with actions when freeing up players not involved the match-day 23 for club games when the situation arises.

I am not questioning the benefits to be had from Academy involvement, but it and club should never be mutually exclusive.

So to 'Calculator Day' and while the rugby populace might not be holding its breath as in the days of yore there are still some big issues to be decided.

In Division 1A of the Ulster Bank League, Lansdowne and Terenure have qualified for home semi-finals, with Clontarf travelling to Lakelands.

Lansdowne will find out today who their opposition will be. Ballynahinch (at home to 'Tarf) look the most likely but Young Munster, Old Belvedere, Cork Con and UCD are still in the mix.

Even the bottom game has a relevance: if St Mary's can take maximum points from their clash with Dolphin, they will pressurise Belvo, Con and College in the bid to avoid a play-off with the loser of Galwegians and Garryowen for the final top-flight place for next season.

Depending on the result in Crowley Park, Trinity could sneak into second place in Division 1B, although realistically the Glenina winner should take the title, with the loser facing the ninth-placed team from Division 1A in a promotion/relegation decider.

Old Wesley (definitely) and Blackrock (probably - Skerries have an outside chance) seem done and dusted for promotion from 2A, with Malone and Corinthians dropping down from 1B.

Ards are already demoted from the AIL for 2015/16 with Richmond (as DLSP are at home to Ards) most likely to join them.

So many permutations and so many crunch games with perhaps Galwegians-Garryowen the pick of the crop.

But there will be a monster crowd too at Irish Independent Park as Highfield will be receiving the Division 2B trophy ahead of the local derby with Sunday's Well, for whom a win will gain the home side promotion.

It's Club day and it's still special.

Horrible to see players brandish imaginary cards

At an AIL game recently, I witnessed an incident where the flanker on the visiting team deliberately killed the ball, which immediately prompted three players from the home team to rush to the referee with arms waving as if brandishing a yellow card.

Call me old fashioned but it stank. The message it sent out was all wrong.

Youngsters are influenced by whatever they see at whatever level but in this instance it was club players aping conduct more associated with the full-time professional game than club or school. Either way it was wrong.

By contrast, last Saturday at the Aviva in a full-on Champions Cup quarter-final we saw the other end of the spectrum. When Fergus McFadden was knocked cold after colliding with Kyle Eastmond's shoulder, we had Bath wing Matt Banahan gesturing to make sure play was stopped so that the Leinster man could be treated.

That act followed by Eastmond's clear concern for the injured McFadden brought it back to the game I know.

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