Donal Lenihan: Crisis shows the importance of clubs outside their sporting sphere

The coronavirus has set challenges for sports clubs and organisations across the spectrum. From a rugby perspective, the professional game is already in turmoil after only weeks of inactivity, while its amateur equivalent is also feeling the pain, writes Donal Lenihan.
Donal Lenihan: Crisis shows the importance of clubs outside their sporting sphere
Walk on: A woman and two children make their way through a rapeseed field in Co Louth. Donal Lenihan says the amateur sporting landscape has been challenged but clubs will rise to the test. Picture: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

The coronavirus has set challenges for sports clubs and organisations across the spectrum. From a rugby perspective, the professional game is already in turmoil after only weeks of inactivity, while its amateur equivalent is also feeling the pain, writes Donal Lenihan.

The amateur game

May 20 is a date highlighted in my calendar for a long time.

The AGM of Cork Constitution is scheduled to take place that evening.

I’m due to become president of the club following in a long line of distinguished administrators who have held similar office over the previous 128 years. Only time will tell if the meeting can proceed as scheduled.

We are getting used to putting things that we took for granted in our everyday lives on hold in these challenging times.

Little did we appreciate when the Cork Con senior side beat Trinity in College Park on a rain-soaked, windswept day on February 29 that we had just witnessed the last day of competitive action in the All Ireland league for the season.

The suddenness with which the IRFU called a halt to domestic rugby caught everyone by surprise, even if the growing seriousness around the spread of the coronavirus was beginning to register.

Having won all 14 games in Division 1A of the league, Con were in a very strong position to retain the title, something we have failed to do in the past, despite an outstanding record of consistency since the league was first introduced 30 years ago.

The impact of Covid-19 on the day-to-day activities of clubs across a variety of sports all over the country poses financial challenges for all concerned.

It extends far beyond the players and coaches as all clubs play a crucial role in the social landscape of its members and the local community.

That has certainly been the case with my own club with the fallout taking effect even before the announcement of the official lockdown.

On the Friday before what was our next league game at home to Terenure in Temple Hill, one of the biggest fundraising days for the club, our Cheltenham Gold Cup race day, was primed to take place in the Rochestown Park Hotel.

This annual event attracts over 350 people. It was to be a notable day too for our long-term partners and sponsors of the event, Cork Builders Providers, who celebrate their 30th anniversary in business this year.

Many of their clients and customers were due to travel from far and wide to honour their personal business milestone.

To mark the occasion, we had arranged for the Sam Maguire and Liam McCarthy cups to be present along with players from the Cork hurling and football squads that famously captured the double back in 1990, the company’s first year of trading.

However, with concerns increasing about the potential implications of having so many people gathered in one room, both parties harboured reservations.

On the Monday prior to the event, the joint decision to cancel was taken.

That call came at a great cost to the club, but was unquestionably the right one, even if it appeared extraordinary in the circumstances that 250,000 people were still allowed assemble over the course of the four-day festival itself to watch the racing live. Over 20,000 fans travelled from Ireland.

By the Thursday, the Terenure fixture was pulled by the IRFU, meaning a special ladies lunch taking place to raise funds and support for the Cork Pink Week cancer charity also had to be cancelled.

A 10-year reunion of the Cork Con side that won the league in 2010 was scheduled to coincide with our next home game against Clontarf, but that too was gone.

In addition to the rugby-specific functions, Vipr exercise classes, bridge club activities, and a host of private functions and parties have all been cancelled - not to mention the regular income generated by the club bar, adding further financial hardship to the club.

Given our position in the league, it was almost certain that we would have also host a home semi-final in the AIL, another great moneyspinner.

The loss of the opening rounds of Munster hurling and football championship games in Páirc Uí Chaoimh next month will also impact the club financially, as our pitches have become an official parking venue under the Garda Síochána traffic management plan for big events.

Prior to that, we had always been a popular venue for parking for GAA fans from Kerry, Tipperary, Waterford, and Limerick.

Having to close the clubhouse also carries a heavy social cost.

Those bridge club nights typically bring together a high percentage of our senior citizens living in the area who are now cocooning.

Once a month, the club hosts a coffee morning for retired members and their friends to come and reminisce about times past.

I have no doubt whatsoever that clubs across all sports have been similarly affected.

It is only in circumstances like this that we come to really appreciate the role that clubs, especially GAA clubs in rural Ireland, play outside of their chosen sporting sphere.

The announcement by the IRFU of a €500,000 emergency fund to help rugby clubs in distress was greeted warmly until you delved into the paperwork.

Only then do you come to appreciate that you need to be on the brink of extinction before receiving a maximum payout of €5,000.

As for the scrapping of the season, everyone in the club is massively disappointed that the opportunity to add another national title has been missed. That said, with everything else that is going on, such concerns pale into insignificance.

If anything, I feel our city neighbours, Highfield, have been more discommoded.

They have lost the opportunity for promotion to the top division of the league for the first time in history after a stellar year in Division 1B which they were leading when the campaign was halted.

What that has done is rob both clubs of two Friday Night Lights derby games that would have been brilliant both financially and for the profile of club rugby at a time when Munster have little or no presence in Cork.

With UCC also in the top division, the addition of a third club and six derby nights in total would have been fantastic for club rugby in the city.

The amateur sporting landscape has been challenged in ways we could not have envisioned only a few short months ago but I have no doubt that clubs across all sports will band together and discover new ways to rise to the challenge.

The professional game

At the opposite end of the scale, the fallout has been swift.

A few weeks ago, I highlighted the financial challenges faced by the respective rugby unions on this side of the world.

Since then, things have deteriorated dramatically especially, as anticipated, in the southern hemisphere.

In the midst of the crisis, a key battle is taking place at the helm of World Rugby, an organisation whose guidance and financial support has become critical to the future of the game as a professional sport.

Former England captain Bill Beaumont is fighting for a second four-year term as chairman of World Rugby.

He is favoured to retain his position and see off the challenge of his current vice chair, former Argentine scrum-half, Agustín Pichot. If Beaumont represents the establishment, Pichot could become a powerful voice for the Sanzaar and Tier 2 nations.

The election for the chairmanship will be conducted electronically on Sunday, with the result revealed on May 12.

The vote is conducted by the 52 members of World Rugby Council. The ten unions of the Six Nations and Rugby Championship get three votes each.

Japan has two; Canada, Fiji, Georgia, Romania, Samoa, Uruguay, and the US have one. Pichot is deemed the outsider but then, so too was Donald Trump.

Watch this space and stay safe.

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