Last Sunday I was privileged to attend the Ireland New Zealand (All Blacks) rugby international at the Aviva Stadium. Fantastic match, wonderful atmosphere, great standard and Ireland were pipped at the last minute by the World Champions. One of the best sporting events I have attended – without question. And the occasion showed the Aviva off to its best – and no one could question the ‘atmosphere’ at the stadium – it was ‘electric’.
And there have been several fantastic days with Leinster, Munster and Ulster over the last number of years.
But then this morning I read about Blackrock Rugby Club and its problems. And these are compared and contrasted with the growth and success of Cuala GAA (and reference to my own Club Kilmacud Crokes).
I think back to my playing rugby in Belvedere College, Trinity College and Old Belvedere. I played schools rugby and, afterwards, junior rugby with TCD and OBRFC. Great years – and many matches against Blackrock (not against the stars – Slattery, Duggan, etc., but against fellow junior rugby players, followed by lots of craic afterwards in Stradbrook, the Pav or Anglesea Road). I have fantastic memories of junior club rugby and the friendships formed over many years. And when I played the guys who played on the first XV (or even at representative level) were just better than me. But generally we felt part of the same organisation, sport, club.
Now my kids play football, camogie and hurling with Kilmacud Crokes – another set of friendships for them and for me. Lots of the same type of endeavour – coaching, fundraising, àdmin, etc. I thought rugby was thriving also – with huge numbers playing mini rugby. But I wonder.
Cuala and Crokes are examples of two clubs bulging at the seams – with massive intake of young boys and girls each year. They are both looking for new and upgraded facilities. There is huge demand for mid week, flood-lit training facilities – in order to enable teams to train through late autumn, winter and early spring. There are only so many slots available between, say, 6.30 and 9.30 – Monday to Friday. And during the winter all-weather or weather-proof pitches are critical to managing the logistics associated with bad weather.
And the current levels of growth are spurred on by Dublin’s current levels of achievement in Men’s senior football and hurling. Significant growth in numbers of girls playing football and camogie is also driving demand for facilities – Ladies Football being one of the great success stories of the last 10/15 years.
Rugby has all the required success stories – Ulster, Munster and Leinster. It has the stars – Brian O’Driscoll being the outstanding one. It has the tradition of Schools Cup rugby. Mini rugby and tag rugby have been great successes. So what’s the problem – or is there one?
Om first examination the Dublin football team removes Club players from the fold in much the same way that Leinster removes players from the Club scene. In GAA circles postponement of Club Championship matches until the county players return is a constant source of debate/ argument. But there is a difference – the GAA players return, they do not have employment contracts with Dublin and at all times remain part of the club. Presumably there must be mixed emotions in a rugby club as they lose someone to the professional game – to return when? Nowadays much of the top talent skips the club scene – joining elite squads from schools rugby or via third level scholarships.
I have no issue with professional sport. In rugby this is what is producing the excitement (and the standard) of the Heineken Cup etc. But how to maintain and sustain club rugby? This does not seem to have been resolved. When Cuala and Kilmacud look to develop new facilities – they will first look to their members and their communities to assist with fundraising – but I have no doubt that the GAA itself will support these initiatives – the GAA recognises that development in the community, at club level, player development (at all levels) is the future of the organisation. I would expect the IRFU to be in the same position – but I wonder whether it is. It’s not a question about the merits of paying players. Presumably professional rugby should be capable of generating much greater TV revenues – given international coverage. But it may be a question of looking to divert greater percentages of the cake to supporting and sustaining the amateur organisation that is club rugby.
If professional rugby is to be fed by the schools then does it need club rugby? I think this is the nub of the question. In spite of all the words used the reality is that club rugby is effectively in competition with professional rugby. The Clubs play a role at mini rugby level and in offering playing opportunities to players not attending rugby playing schools. But ultimately the professional sides are happy to talent spot and recruit at schools level (or via sponsored contacts at University level).
I have great memories of playing adult sport – rugby, cricket, hockey, golf (ongoing), indoor soccer. Sport is great for kids – for any number of reasons. But I would be very keen to see more adults continue to play after school. If rugby or GAA finds itself struggling on this front then this needs to be addressed – we need more people playing (whatever sport they choose) for longer.
Right now I wonder whether rugby is getting it right – in terms of the balance between Schools, Club and professional sides. As a game it offers so much – it still accommodates people of different physical attributes more effectively than many other sports.
Perhaps ultimately amateur rugby will have to establish itself as a separate organisation – with its own objectives. We have professional and amateur golf – and it seems to work. Rugby is a great game – perhaps amateur rugby needs to find itself and reestablish its attractiveness and its own energy. There may be new opportunities going forward for greater cooperation between clubs and schools – on the basis that schools may only have a limited appetite for sending their pupils into professional sport.
I am delighted to see Cuala, our local GAA rivals, expanding and developing their facilities. I would also like to see Blackrock expanding and thriving (although obviously less so than Old Belvedere, given my own allegiances!). And more facilities for all other sports – basketball, soccess, hockey, whatever. For amateur rugby, I hope it finds a way forward quickly. It may have to do this with less support than anticipated from the professional game.