Clubs stranded between a rock and a hard place

The changing names of those clubs filling out the fixtures and tables are to be welcomed on the basis that change is not to be feared.

Garryowen. Shannon. A packed Dooradoyle. Same as it ever was except, of course, it won’t be when the two Limerick rivals scrape off any summer rust tonight and go head-to-head like butting rams.

When referee David Wilkinson gives them the nod at 7.30pm it will mark the first time in the near quarter century since the All-Ireland League was spawned that the clubs meet outside the top flight.

Their very presence in the shadows of Division 1B — with Garryowen sliding down last May 12 months after their great adversaries — stands in stark contrast to their status as leading lights 23 years ago when the AIL’s first season ended with Shannon’s title charge falling away in the last two weeks and Garryowen’s halted only on the final day when Cork Con raided a heaving Dooradoyle to claim the inaugural honours.

Between them, Garryowen and Shannon can claim 10 of the 24 titles won. Time and again their local meetings have determined wider national questions, as was perhaps most famously the case in 1998 when Shannon claimed their four-in-a-row in front of 15,000 people at Lansdowne Road and men like Marcus Horan, John Hayes and Anthony Foley represented one side and David Wallace, Tom Tierney and Barry Everitt the other.

It’s not just in Limerick the certainties of old have been skewed. The shifts underfoot in the club game have been, in many cases, little short of tectonic with grand old institutions crumbling and replaced in the firmament by upstarts from parts of the country where the thoughts for a senior rugby club would have once been deemed mere pie in the sky.

Aside from Garryowen and Shannon, two other past champions now reside outside Division 1A: Ballymena in the second tier and Dungannon all the way down in 2A, the third. Of the nine clubs who boasted top tier status back in 1990/91, only three remain. Wanderers have slid all the way down to 2B and Instonians were relieved of their senior status entirely by Kanturk in a promotion/relegation play-off last season.

Kanturk. Boyne. Tullamore. Cashel.

The changing names of those clubs filling out the fixtures and tables are to be welcomed on the basis that change is not to be feared. Yet, in the history of the AIL it has been all too common with the number and make-up of divisions chopped and changed. End-of-season play-offs have been adopted, dispensed with and re-introduced. Regulations on the use or not of professional contracted players have been tweaked and tapered.

What it all amounts to is a competition and a grade of rugby that, all these years after an inaugural season that was overwhelmingly welcomed as being one of the most significant boosts for the game in this country, is still searching in vain for the rung of the ladder below the professional provinces on which it can find a true footing.

Like the club games in soccer and the GAA, the AIL’s greatest challenge is perhaps that of proving its relevance in a crowded arena where the eyes of administrators, sponsors, TV, potential punters and the media are all drawn to the glitz and glamour of the professional game which usurped it two decades ago. Yet Andy Wood, head coach of reigning league champions Clontarf, believes it remains a vital link in the game’s ecosystem.

“It’s in giving academy players and guys who haven’t been involved a window to play regular rugby,” he explained at the season launch earlier this week, “so that they’re trained regularly, play regularly and ideally to feed in and out of the academy if and when required. Or onto development contracts in the case of some.”

The wide range, and seriousness, of the challenges facing the clubs has been apparent for some time but the ‘Club Sustainability Report’ put together by the IRFU earlier this year, after two years of talks with various people in the game at that level, still made for fraught reading. Sponsorship streams down between 40-50%. Bar revenue down 30%. A cumulative debt between 121 clubs of €20.5m. Twelve clubs in the hoc up to €½m.

The recommendation that attracted all the headlines was that banning any direct payment of players by the clubs or third parties as of this month and yet here too there was recognition of the dilemma facing clubs expected to fertilise the grassroots while at the same time feed the pro game given the IRFU admitted that some were in favour of the abolition while others argued they had adequate revenue streams to cater for such cash transactions.

Whatever way you look at it, the clubs remain stranded between a rock and a hard place.

* E-mail: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

* Twitter: @Rackob

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