Scrap the academy and give power and resources back to the clubs and you will help to solve some of the problems besetting Munster Rugby, writes Charlie Mulqueen
That’s just one of several strong views held by Gerry McLoughlin, one of the game’s legendary figures, as he considers a less than promising future for the game in the province.
“Ginger”, as he is known to those fans who happily recall his exploits in the black and blue jersey of his club Shannon, the red of his native province and the green of Ireland; looks at what is happening these days with a jaundiced eye. He fears the game outside of Leinster may soon be unable to fund its activities and points the finger of blame chiefly at the academies that are costing what he maintains are unsustainable sums of money. Just about every facet of the game — the schools, the clubs, the Munster Branch, the IRFU — also incur his wrath. McLoughlin has never been afraid to speak his mind and act courageously — a few years ago, he was a frequently controversial figure in his native city and still became Mayor of Limerick against all the odds.
“Can this country support four European Cup teams capable of taking on clubs with the resources of those in England, Paris, the south of France?” he asks. “Where are we going? What kind of world are we going to live in? A make-believe world? Across the water, they don’t give contracts for life. We have players who obviously aren’t good enough. And we’re losing players. You don’t pick up a JJ Hanrahan every day of the week.
“The crowds are fickle. They will support you when you’re winning but lose a few and you’re flogging a dead horse. I don’t see the IRFU bothering too much about Munster. Leinster will never have a problem because of where it’s located and the population but I am despondent enough about the other three provinces.
“It’s a commercial world. It’s a business and all of a sudden the whole thing can start to slide and there’s nothing you can do about it. How many people are employed by Munster? How much does it cost to keep them going? It’s an industry. There must be more than a hundred people employed between the two cities. How can you keep that going when everyone demands success? But you have to pay for success.
“Business has kidnapped the game. The powers that be have a lot to answer for. They have destroyed the game. I suppose I’ll be called an old fogey for what I’m saying but that’s how I feel. I love rugby, whether it’s Shannon winning by 100 points or losing by 100 points, as long as guys are enjoying themselves. That’s the tradition I was brought up on. That tradition is based on loyalty, not fellas jumping from Munster to Leinster to Ulster to Connacht. I just think loyalty is huge.
“Supposing the bottom falls out of the European Cup and the money isn’t there or something goes wrong. Do we all concentrate then on one team — Ireland? Will the franchises come in like you have in American football and ice hockey? That’s the way the whole global thing is going.”
Even though Munster have been at pains over the last week or so to stress that funds are available to sign the right kind of overseas talent; if it comes to a contest for a certain player between the province and, say, Toulon, few doubt that the French millions will hold sway. That reality grates on McLoughlin.
“You’ve got to look at how many players Munster have in the academy and how much it is costing,” he stresses. “You look at how much money you have coming in and how you are spending it and say: we can afford to have only 30 players and one team. Manchester United have only one team.”
Ask McLoughlin how the best young talent in the province would be developed without the academy and he leaves you in no doubt about the answer.
“You’ve got 10 clubs or so each in Limerick and Cork who would gladly look after those players,” he asserts. “Club players train very hard and give a huge commitment. There’s a lot of skill in club rugby. It may not be up to the power standards of the Leicesters and Saracens who can bring in the likes of the Tuigamalas, Vunipolas, the South Sea islanders.
“But the AIL and the clubs are still strong enough to provide the back-up and the necessary element of competition. We still have the finest facilities God ever put on this earth so let’s use them and allow the 500 young fellas we have training with Shannon every Sunday morning to develop through a club system. They will learn the tricks of the trade that I had to learn. You will learn more about yourself, skill and camaraderie playing at club level than you ever will at an elite level. And remember, all the clubs have great coaches.
“Forget about the academies. You’re giving guys expectations and all of a sudden they have no balance in their lives from a very young age.
“They don’t know where they are going. They’re not guaranteed anything. They could be dismissed. I just think it’s unfair. So I’d say cut your panel to the bare minimum and pull out of the zero competitions.”
Nor do the schools escape McLoughlin’s wrath. “They don’t allow their lads to play for the clubs who have nurtured them up to 13 years of age. So they’ve lost that club spirit and are gone from you. The schools take them on the one hand, Munster on the other. The lads don’t know where they stand. Luckily up to now. we’ve had loyalty from people like O’Connell and O’Gara. There’s credit due to them for sticking with Munster. They’re the shining lights, I think, who set examples, those two in particular, and O’Mahony is also a fella who probably won’t go anywhere.”
McLoughlin admits the game as it is played at the highest level no longer appeals to him.
“Professionalism is a money thing and I never engaged one bit with the professional game,” he muses. “I love rugby for the sake of rugby. I’d prefer to watch an U10s match than a European Cup match. It depends on your breeding. Rugby was always competitive and it was always local. When there are families, rivalries and so on, you can engage with players. That doesn’t happen anymore. The game I was brought up with, when you could have a craic before the match, during the match and after the match, you could slag each other; it’s all been taken over by the professional game. You know, I never remember having even a pint out of Shannon. I’d feel guilty if I got a pint from Shannon after a match. It never entered your head.”
McLoughlin was aghast when reminded that these days they’re deciding Munster Cup matches in favour of the side that scored the game’s first try in the event of a draw. “Obviously the cup is a nuisance to the Munster Branch,” he lamented. “That is composed of the clubs, so they’re playing into the hands of the union. The clubs are just not strong enough — and with all the resources in Dublin, it’s going to be almost impossible for any club to survive in the country. The amount of players being bought by Dublin clubs in terms of getting them jobs and so on is unbelievable. And bought is the word. If you offer a guy a job, you can’t blame him for taking it.
“There was pride in playing for where you came from. There was the fact Garryowen had stolen a march on everyone. So we all wanted to be as good as Garryowen — and there’s nothing wrong with that, so your club was the most important thing. You were surrounded by people who had given their life’s blood to rugby through their club. And we learned to be good losers. I have five Munster Cup medals but I think I lost four finals. I remember being stuffed 29-0 in a final by Garryowen. There was no place to hide. So Garryowen taught us all a lesson, they did us all a favour.”
Then there was the Cork-Limerick rivalry. “Cons were the kingpins in Cork so getting down to Cork and beating Cons and beating the Murphys, the Kiernans, the McGanns of this world, that was the whole thing... you had the Wards, the Whelans, the Moloneys in Garryowen.
“And if you could hold your own in that company, you could do so as well when moving on to Munster. That was important. You could see which players were capable of moving on.
“We had a natural academy there.”
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