IRFU President Martin O’Sullivan has vowed to devote resources and energies to improving the state of the All-Ireland League.
The new club season commenced last night but the competition has slipped far from the public consciousness since the onset of professionalism and the subsequent success of provincial and national sides.
Though accepting that the glory days of 10,000 strong crowds are now a distant memory, O’Sullivan insists more can be done to help increase attendances and revenues for AIL sides across the country.
“What we are trying to do is to invest money at all levels of the game so that the clubs will become stronger and better resourced,” he states.
“Clearly they’re not as strong as they used to be even if some of the wounds have been self inflicted. So we are investing in resources to help them.
“We continue to give them some direct funding and there is some prize money in the Ulster Bank League.
“One of the problems we face is that an awful lot of people were driven out of clubs because they started to pay players and went away from the old way of recruiting and nurturing their own players.
“Even young fellows leaving school were being given money to join clubs.
“What happened was that many of these clubs couldn’t afford to do this, especially when a lot of their supporters drifted away to professional rugby and as a consequence, they weren’t getting the same level of gate money.
“Furthermore, during the recession, they were losing the sponsorship they had been receiving.
“It became harder to run golf classics and corporate entertainment around representative matches, selling lunches and so on prior to Ireland and European Cup games, diminished.
“A lot of people who had been traditionally involved felt they would not do so any longer, they were disillusioned.
“They felt ... ‘I’m giving up my spare time to raise money for guys who will come in and take that money and then leave and go’.
“So we brought in new rules (relating to payment of players) a year or two ago. We did so in the knowledge that they would be very hard to implement.
“But we believe if clubs perform in line with the rules, then the club game will be in a healthier place. One reason why a lot of the clubs are near broke is that they are giving money to young people to play rugby whereas in our generation and generations before us, young men joined up to play the game and only play”, “Clubs can’t sustain going down that road. We [the Union] don’t see All-Ireland League rugby or club rugby as a professional game or even a semi-professional game.” Then there are the restrictions placed by schools on their students continuing to play with the clubs who have introduced them to the game and nurtured them from the age of seven or eight until moving on to secondary school.
O’Sullivan admits that this is a hugely emotive issue.
“The first thing to realise is that different things happen in different provinces”, he says. “This isn’t a major issue in Leinster because most of the under-age rugby there is schools rugby. Arriving at an Irish solution for a provincial problem has always been difficult. Trying to come up with a Munster solution is a problem. What we’re trying to do is to bring in people at an early age and keep them in rugby for life as players, administrators, whatever. The schools don’t have an agenda to keep guys in the game and that’s an issue for me. They may feel it’s not their responsibility but maybe it should be.
“It should be about engendering a love of the game and a loyalty to the game among the people under their supervision.
“They will tell you about their pupils who went on to play for Munster and Ireland and the Lions but nothing about the 90% who gave rugby up when they left school.
“Maybe that happened because the experience wasn’t pleasant or they had cut their ties with the clubs.
“It’s an area we have to attack but it’s a highly politicised area.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved