This weekend marks the culmination of a season’s long graft and commitment when Clontarf and Cork Constitution play their 20th and final game in Division 1A of the Ulster Bank League, contesting the showcase final on the hallowed turf of Lansdowne Road in a clash to be screened live on RTÉ.
Yet few outside the respective clubs even know or care about the decider. It barely features on the IRFU horizon either, apart from the fact a few committee members will be summoned to appear on the day to show cause.
Professional rugby is where it’s at and the vast majority of the governing body’s time and energy is devoted to running the four provinces and the various national sides.
I get that and, in comparison to some of their counterparts around the globe, the IRFU has done an excellent job.
The club game in this country has become a bit of an inconvenience to many within the union, however, a scratch that needs to be itched every now and then.
When in doubt carry out a survey, ask the clubs what they want, and then continue with what was decided in advance of the survey in the first place.
I have witnessed an ever-diminishing interest in the club game over the last decade, the decline in once-great competitions like the Munster Senior Cup which, for some reason, the Munster Branch always seems obsessed with running off with undue haste. In some respects, this has to do with fitting everything into a club season that is too long and demands far too much of amateur players.
In most of the clubs competing in the top two divisions of the Ulster Bank League, the players are expected to start training in July. Depending on your final league position, with promotion and relegation play-offs in all the national competitions, the season can extend into May. If you are successful on all fronts, the demands can be exacting. Next Sunday’s finalists will certainly attest to that. For Cork Constitution, the decider marks their 29th competitive game of the season across four competitions — the Cork Charity Cup, the Munster Senior Cup, the Bateman Cup and the Ulster Bank League.
The fact they have been successful across all those platforms, while hugely satisfying, has placed enormous demands and massive levels of commitment not only from the players, given how small the club squads are, but from everyone involved in keeping the club ticking over.
At one stage, between January and March this year, Cork Con were required to play on 10 weekends in a row across a mix of those tournaments, with the vast majority of the same players required to front up in all those clashes. There is no way their pro counterparts would be asked to perform with anything approaching that regularity, on health and safety grounds alone.
Likewise, Sunday’s final marks Clontarf’s 24th competitive outing across the Leinster Senior League, Leinster Senior Cup and Ulster Bank League, with those commitments placing similar demands on the players and management of Dublin’s leading club.
The amount of time and effort expended by volunteers across those clubs enables both to remain highly competitive on all fronts and continues to introduce a waft of underage talent into the game. Many of the players making the grade at professional level today took their first tentative steps in the game across a wide variety of such clubs, spread across the length and breadth of the country.
Without them, the professional game in Ireland simply wouldn’t exist. Unfortunately, that pathway is often taken for granted by those in authority.
Last year, the IRFU’s performance director David Nucifora created new provincial coaching roles to ensure quality young players do not slip through the pro net. ‘A lot of the onus will be in the areas outside the traditional catchment areas of talent,’ said Nucifora. “I’ve spoken about the schools being the obvious areas that we know where our talent lies.
“That’s great and we’ll continue to work with them, but the role of these guys will be to work closely with clubs and other schools to make sure we are identifying more potential talent we can bring into the pathway to broaden the talent pool.”
It’s clear the area Nucifora’s talent scouts will be targeting is clubland, looking to benefit from the unstinting coaching work being done by volunteers in introducing young players to the game, in many cases from non- traditional routes.
It is only right promising talent nurtured from those sources should have the same opportunity of progressing into professional rugby as those coming through the traditional schools.
It grates, however, with a lot of clubs the work being undertaken by them to nurture that talent frequently goes unrecognised by those running the game. The fact the two semi-finals of the Ulster Bank League hosted by Lansdowne and Clontarf 10 days ago had to be played parallel to Leinster’s televised Champions Cup semi-final in Lyon just fed into the notion clubs, even at the top level, don’t really matter that much.
There must be some recognition and reward for the club game, which, by the way, placed the vast majority of the decision-makers in the IRFU in their current roles, and which continues to do unstinting work in aiding the development process for our future pros. Truly, the club game deserves more respect.
How ironic, then, two men who travelled the unconventional route towards the pro game should choose to call time on their careers within days of each other in Mike Ross and James Coughlan. Prop forwards tend to just drift into the night, with Leinster and Ireland tight head Ross the latest to depart the scene without fuss. Ross is the poster boy for young players with aspirations of making the grade to keep believing in themselves.
Despite his gradual progression through the ranks of Fermoy, UCC and Cork Con, Munster showed little faith in the big tight head despite the fact he clearly had the frame, explosive power and temperament to make the grade. Harlequins and Dean Richards, in particular, offered that platform and Ross had the determination to follow through on it. To achieve what he has after graduating to the international stage so late is phenomenal.
Likewise, his fellow Cork man, Coughlan proved there is always a chance for the late developer. The level of his performances for Dolphin in the All-Ireland League demanded he too be given a chance to make the cut. Captaining Munster to yet another historic victory over Australia will, I’m sure, be a career highlight but his consistent excellence in the Munster No 8 shirt will be fondly remembered by all.
Connacht’s Matt Healy, Niyi Adeolokun — both capped for Ireland — and Craig Ronaldson are others to prove that it is possible to make the grade from the upper echelon of the All-Ireland League to the professional game.
Joey Carbery and Darren Sweetnam played in last year’s Ulster Bank final before going on to great things this season. For that reason alone tune into next Sunday’s decider to identify the next star turn. I promise you a very competitive and enjoyable contest with the players on both sides giving everything to the cause of their respective clubs. Just as it should be.