“You do it because you love it, but you’re easily looking at 20 hours a week, between organising buses for matches, training, the next fundraiser-my wife thinks I’m married to the club at this stage.”
As the PRO of St Senan’s RFC in Shannon, Robbie Hoban’s summation as to why he and many others around Munster give so much of their time and effort to the thankless task of running a junior rugby club encapsulates all that is good in grassroots sport.
The efforts of committee members, parents and volunteers garner no material reward or notoriety, but their altruism ensures clubs provide an invaluable outlet to their communities, and that rugby continues to flourish.
With the success of the provinces, along with Joe Schmidt seemingly turning around the fortunes of the national side, rugby in Ireland has never been stronger but after scratching below the surface, a harsh truth reveals there is a plethora of clubs in a perennial struggle to keep their heads above water.
In these straitened times, financial parity is now the greatest concern for those charged with safeguarding the future of junior clubs.
Shane O’Sullivan, in his first year as the secretary of Tralee RFC in Kerry, has found his role is almost solely dedicated to finding money.
“The biggest pitfall is that you’re trying to run a club on what I would describe as a fairly limited budget, so you’re kind of constrained to things you can do by the finances of the club.
“Your bills are coming in the whole time and you’re trying to keep the club above the level, and you’re always trying to come up with ideas for fundraisers and to increase revenue and cut back expenditure,” he said.
Sources of revenue from sponsorship have not been forthcoming in recent years and clubs have had to increase and vary fundraising initiatives to keep their heads above water. But, according to Oliver Clery of Waterford City RFC, there is only so much people can spare.
“I’m involved also in Daffodil Day and everyone has seen a drop in their revenue because people don’t have it. Those who would have given you €10, now give you five, so there’s been a massive reduction in subscriptions from the public.”
Clery points to travel expenses, particularly in light of distance many clubs have to travel for away games. Subsequently, Waterford City, like many others, have had to cut back on hiring coaches.
“We travel to West Clare or Killarney, and from Waterford, that distance is a substantial cost, as it is for the kids, going to the likes of Thurles and Clonmel. This year our first team have decided to travel in their own cars to reduce costs, but we still give the players that drive an agreed expense.”
Robbie Hoban says St Senan’s adopted a similar approach in a bid to limit their outgoings while bearing in mind long drives are hardly ideal preparation for players.
Kanturk RFC chairman Michael Breen agrees travel expenses are significant, but also contends that, for the underage sides in particular, journeys to and from matches are an integral part of building relationships.
“At underage level that would be a huge financial cost for us, so lately we’ve been charging two or three euro for the bus, depending on far we have to travel.
“But I think the bus is very important for the youngsters, because it is part of their day and it is part of building friendships. We’re a rural club, so a lot of them wouldn’t be meeting from one end of the week to the next, so at least they can travel together and have a bit of fun.”
Shane O’Sullivan reckons junior clubs in certain areas are hesitant to try and push for senior status because progressing to the national level is not financially viable.
“In places like Waterford and Kerry there will always be junior clubs, and some of them do have aspirations to go AIL, but transportation costs alone, particularly for a club like Tralee, when you’re going to the north and Dublin on almost a weekly occurrence, it might be too much.”
There is also insurance to consider, with clubs paying €2,000 annually per senior team to the IRFU scheme arranged by AON, which largely negates the grants they receive from the union.
Despite the monetary hardships, the numbers now lining out for junior clubs are at an unprecedented level, even for those situated in communities where rugby is a minority sport.
At Tralee and Thurles, where the GAA and, to a lesser extent, soccer, are the dominant codes, up to 300 children turn out every Saturday for training and matches.
As the AIL continues to enjoy a period of resurgence, Sean Ryan-Lanigan from Thurles RFC, feels the onus is on the IRFU to ensure junior clubs are not forgotten and that their role in developing talent is recognised.
“It’s hard enough to get the powers that be to recognise that [role of junior clubs], they seem to put a lot more emphasis on the schools or senior clubs for players. The junior clubs are important as feeders to the senior clubs.”
Shane O’Sullivan concurs: “I don’t think the IRFU, to a certain degree, have the same opinion of junior clubs as they do of senior clubs. They’re forgetting about junior clubs, which in a lot of cases are feeder clubs for senior clubs.
“You’ve seen the likes of JJ Hanrahan and Danny Barnes go on from Castleisland and Tralee to Munster, but to a certain degree those clubs are being ignored.”