Allow the club game to wither at your peril — and here’s why...

Cork Constitution’s Sean French celebrates scoring a try in the All-Ireland League Division 1A semi-final win over Trinity at Temple Hill. Picture: Ryan Byrne

Regular readers will be familiar with my views on the club game in this country and the role it can still play for professional players at either end of the rugby spectrum.

Leinster’s world class academy continues to benefit hugely from working in tandem with the 19 ‘A’ schools participating in their competitions annually. 

The quality of talent emerging from that source is astonishing, with the top schoolboys ready to step into the professional game far quicker than ever before.

Munster, with a much narrower base and numbers to work with, doesn’t have that depth of quality coming through the schools’ system.

Hence the necessity for the connect between the club - at youths and adult levels - and the professional game within the province to, not only to be recognised, but enhanced.

Unfortunately it’s a view that is not shared by everyone in the professional hierarchy in Munster, a stance that I fear will come back to haunt the game in the province over the next decade.

Last Sunday, Cork Con hosted a very talented Trinity side that included a number of quality young players that could, in time, break into the Leinster set up, in a riveting AIL Division 1A semi-final at Temple Hill. The make-up of the Con bench was interesting.

Sitting together, two men at opposite ends of their rugby journey. Duncan Williams has made 163 appearances at scrum-half for Munster but finishes over a decade of service to the senior squad when his contract expires at the end of the month.

Alongside him, Jonathan Wren, an ever present in the Ireland U20 side that captured the Grand Slam in such spectacular fashion this season. 

A first-year member of the Munster academy, Wren is setting out on what promises to be a very exciting professional rugby career.

What makes Williams’ presence on the bench interesting is the fact that he insisted Munster coach Johann van Graan made him available to a club he first played for as a 7-year-old in the mini-rugby section. 

Even more noteworthy was the fact that he knew it was unlikely he’d be in the starting team.

Williams felt it was only right that Jason Higgins, Con’s regular scrum-half throughout the last few seasons while he was firmly ensconced in the Munster setup, should retain his starting place.

Having played sparingly throughout the current AIL campaign, more often than not at the request of the Munster management in order to gain valuable game time behind Conor Murray and Ally Mathewson in the Munster pecking order, Williams was grateful to have a club to return to.

“It was made clear to me around Christmas that game time with Munster was going to be fairly limited so I let the management in Con know that I was available for games if they needed me. 

"I’m a rugby player and all I wanted to do was play rugby.

“Coming back, you could see the quality. Maybe I forgot how good a league it was when I was playing at 22 or 23 years of age. 

We had a great team back then with a lot going on to play for Munster, the likes of Pete O’Mahony, Steven Archer, Billy Holland, Ian Nagle, Scott Deasy, Simon Zebo.

"The quality was there and it was only when I came back I realised that it is still there.

“I played against UCD in Temple Hill a few weeks ago and I was out on my feet after 30 minutes. The skill level in the league is fairly high and teams play at a high tempo. 

"It’s a decent level to be involved in, even for a professional looking for game time. It’s quite refreshing to come back and experience the level of rugby that all the clubs are aspiring to play.”

Wren made his senior debut for Cork Con against Garryowen in the Munster Cup final last January, replacing regular full back Liam O’Connell who was forced off with a hamstring injury after 15 minutes. 

Wren’s stepping and counter-attacking ability lit up Thomond Park that afternoon, so much so that you could sense the Garryowen contingent in the crowd scratching their heads. 

Who is this guy?

Due to their commitments with the Ireland U20 squad Wren, along with his Ireland team-mate and former PBC centre partner Sean French, have had limited opportunities to play AIL rugby this season.

French hit the ground running when afforded his chance, scoring five tries in his first two AIL starts.

His lovely solo try just before the break against Trinity last Sunday proved crucial and gave the crowd an exciting glimpse of what he has to offer Munster in the not too distant future.

Both will travel as part of the Ireland U20 squad that contests the Junior World Cup in Argentina next month but, in the interim, they need game time to keep them sharp. 

Playing AIL rugby, at the top level, affords them that opportunity.

Next season, they will be out of age grade rugby and in need of regular game time to augment the excellent individual work they do in the Munster academy. 

With a number of players away with Ireland on World Cup duty, both may well be fast-tracked with Munster. 

If not, then the AIL will be there for them to continue their development towards making the step up to Guinness PRO14 rugby.

Clubs are also there to cater for the unfortunate, but increasing number of players who have had their professional dreams shattered due to injury. 

Jonny Holland had just made the big breakthrough with Munster when claiming the famed No 10 jersey from Ian Keatley back in 2016. 

Having played a starring role for Munster against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium, Holland was on the verge of making the step up.

A hamstring torn off the bone shattered his ambitions and forced him out of the game at 25 years of age. 

When you’re out, you’re out. 

A highly valued member of the Munster family one day, on the outside looking in the next. That is the reality of professional sport.

Holland is now a valued member of the senior coaching set up with Cork Con. 

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do at the time. I was very conscious that Con are a great club and they do try to look after you, even when you’re finished playing. 

"I tried to back out, not in terms of being involved but committing to a coaching role that I didn’t realise I wanted to do. 

Con forced my hand on it and it was a great decision. I would have regretted leaving the game then but the club knew what was best for me at a time that I didn’t know myself.

"I wasn’t so sure, maybe afraid of the commitment a small bit because I had committed my whole life to rugby.

“The club sucked me back in but there are such good people there and it’s definitely the best thing that happened to me.”

A qualified nutritionist amongst other things, the role helped to open doors for Holland who is now a specialist advisor to the Cork hurling and football squads.

Denis Fogarty sat on the bench, as reserve hooker to Jerry Flannery, in Munster’s 2006 Heineken Cup final win over Biarritz. 

After amassing 98 caps for his province, the former Rockwell star sought pastures new and played Pro D2 rugby in France with Aurillac, Agen and Provence between 2012 and 2016. 

Immediately after his retirement, he spent two seasons in charge of the Provence Esquires — their academy. 

However, with two young kids, Denis and his wife, Sarah, hankered for a return home.

While Fogarty was interested in pursuing a coaching career, he wanted to do so on an amateur basis, like so many coaches scattered throughout clubs of all codes around the country. 

He also wanted to get into the workforce and maximise the excellent communication skills and strong work ethic he had developed over the years as a full time professional.

Happenstance drew us together when Denis was invited on RTÉ’s panel for Munster’s Champions Cup semi-final against Racing 92 in Bordeaux last April. 

I knew Denis from his playing days with Cork Constitution. 

“How are things Denis, what are you up to?” I said. And things developed from there.

Fogarty said: “I had made my mind up to come home when we met in Bordeaux. Everybody knows it’s a difficult time finishing up in the professional game. 

"Knowing what to do and where to go was very difficult for my family and I and I’m hugely grateful for my club to help me out in that next step.

“I always knew I didn’t want to do professional coaching. I was delighted when Con offered me a role with the U20 side but the biggest thing for me was the advice and help I received in going about getting a new job and a new career.”

Denis is now a senior account manager with National Business Machines in Munster. 

Over the years, I have spoken to young professional players setting out on their journey about the importance of having “somewhere to hang your hat” when their career comes to an end. 

Munster don’t have a clubhouse. You can’t just pop in and watch them train on a Tuesday and Thursday night. 

It is important to have a support mechanism.

The opportunities that inevitably arise for the cream of the professional crop post-retirement prove the exception rather than the rule. 

Staying connected to a club not only represents a decent starting point, at both ends of the professional landscape, but can ultimately prove both enjoyable and rewarding in the long run. 

Players like Williams and Fogarty are proof of that.

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