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The Unnatural: Ireland's rugby clubs feel the pinch and look to brighter days ahead

Gates chained, finances drained, but rugby clubs across the island are sitting tight for whatever a return to sport will look like.

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THERE’S A CLUB round my way. A club that would ordinarily illuminate a dark street on a string of murky midwinter weeknights.

The house lights would be on inside, paling in comparison to the floodlights above, glowering down on field being trampled to muck and mush by studded boots of any size.

That hive of activity is dormant now, a fairly fallow year for the field. The dreary sky veils the floodlights and the glimmer from behind the clubhouse windows is from the beer taps at the bar. Not much pull on them either these days.

This rugby club isn’t alone. Clubs of all codes know the feeling, pubs too, and businesses of all shapes and sizes are pining to open their doors and bring people back to whatever will pass as normality; a place to go, a spot to sit, chat and enjoy an hour’s distraction full of familiar faces.

The club round your way might be set up a little differently. The posts at either end might take slightly different shapes, the function room space may vary from nil to the structure’s centrepiece. And yet, they all share common needs: open gates, money coming in and boots on the ground to be in normal working order.

Such things all sound like luxuries at the minute.

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a-view-of-clontarf-rugby-clubs-clubhouse-as-the-coronavirus-brings-a-stop-to-all-irish-sport-until-at-least-march-29th File photo: Clontarf close their pitches in March. Source: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

Fifty clubs from Ireland’s four provinces compete in the All-Ireland League, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this week. While once the competition was Irish rugby’s focal point outside of internationals, these clubs now represent the multiple middle rungs. At its best, the AIL provides a direct link for players moving from grassroots through to professional provinces – and back again. Often, though, it can feel like a long lost cousin of the sport that can be seen on live TV every Friday and Saturday.

The professional and amateur sides of the game have never been as far apart as they have since last summer. The pros – well-funded, resourced and without external distractions – have bubbled up, undergone regular testing and mostly steered clear of Covid-19 infection.

The amateur game was postponed along with everything else last March. With case numbers down in late summer, a return to localised competition was attempted through the Energia Community Series in the last week of September. That return was short-lived as government guidelines on both sides of the border necessitated club rugby be shut down again midway through October.

And down it has stayed with the latest bulletin being last month’s all-too-predictable cancellation of the 2020/21 season. Not that it ever really got going.

So it’s coming up on a year since Shannon Rugby Football Club played their last fully-fledged AIL Division 1B home match.

The side who make their home in the shadow of Thomond Park are one of the most recognisable entities in Irish sport. Its clubhouse walls are adorned with evidence of 19 Munster Senior Cups and a record nine All-Ireland League titles – most of which were claimed in the heady days when club rugby would regularly attract crowds to rival a modern province’s gate.

Four Lions have passed through their doors and they count 31 men and women’s Ireland internationals as their own, a number which would have ticked up again had Craig Casey been called from the bench against France last weekend.

They may have shifted restlessly while the 21-year-old was left sidelined during the narrow loss at the Aviva, but there isn’t an ounce of impatience to chairman Tomás Healy when he considers the situation the pandemic has put the club in now.

It will take more than rugby in the blood to resume their ‘natural’ state of play.

“If the vaccine works, it’ll be a silver bullet we all want. We’ll all stand up and put the arm out to take it, because we all need to get back,” Healy tells The42.

“This is unnatural for us to not be having our seven or eight away matches and our friends coming along to home matches.

“It’s just unnatural. It’s unnatural for us not to be out on a Sunday morning watching our kids. It’s unnatural for us not to take a half day to go and watch a schools match.

“This is the most unnatural part of our life. I’m over 60 and I can’t get my head around not being able to go to a rugby match.”

Nor the social benefits that can surround a 70 or 80-minute match. The games within are not limited to rugby; elder statesmen of many a club would regularly be found engaged in a game of cards or darts while doors were open. They are close now while the necessary evil of Level 5 is in action, but standing costs remain on buildings and grounds that, until 2020, had been bringing in invaluable returns on investment along with that most essential ingredient in any club: people.

“I’m from Donegal and Sligo RFC discos were legendary back in the day, a rite of passage,” says Michael Shovelin, who has since found an entirely different reason to rub his hands in anticipation of such a gathering at the foot of Knocknarea in the surfer’s haven of Strandhill.

“Have you seen the movie Airplane!, where the guy says, ‘I picked the wrong week to quit smoking’? Well, I picked the wrong year to be club treasurer. It was literally in March last year. Our youngest fella was about to go to his first disco on St Patrick’s night. The ticket is still on the fridge door.”

Sligo RFC dates back over 130 years, but since their return to senior status in 2011, they enjoyed most of their success with two of their three Connacht Senior Cups secured in the past three years and their increasing representation in Connacht is led by scrum-half Stephen Kerins. Yet heritage nor future hopes can’t dull the financial sting.

“That (teenage disco) would be a huge earner for the club, there would be seven or eight a year. We had the one on Valentine’s, but we had to write off Paddy’s Day, Easter, May…

“Lockdown came at a bad time for us too in that we had finally brought our admission charge up to €10. We had only been charging a fiver. So were starting to enjoy reasonable gate receipts and suddenly that’s gone as well.

“Our bar would have been very active on matchday. Particularly when visiting teams hang around. That’s fallen by the wayside and it was quite difficult trying to raise (money). You’re relying on businesses in the hospitality and retail sector. They’ve closed their doors too and you can’t be expecting them to pony up sponsorship for the club. So there were a series of events that led to, basically, our income stalling completely.”

Over on the east coast, the adrenaline-chasing winter surfers are dragged along by kite and could be watched from the window of Skerries RFC’s first floor. Losing out on Division 2C matchday money is acutely felt here too.

“The big thing for us is pre-match lunches. We have them before every AIL match and we had at least a hundred at each one of those. That’s a big day for us,” says Skerries chairman Nick Heeney, noting that it will take time and a re-think before they can consider feeding that number of people again.

“We have to be realistic, based on the last figures (limits), we’d have been able to sit 30 people downstairs where we used to have 150. We can have 20 upstairs where we used to have 100.”

a-view-of-terenure-college-rfc-as-the-coronavirus-brings-a-stop-to-all-irish-sport-until-at-least-march-29th A view of Terenure's pitch behind lock and key last spring. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Events, dear reader, events. Rugby clubs build treat them as bricks and mortar in their calendar because, in many cases, that’s precisely what they create. Sligo had hoped that an Oscars-themed black tie gala last Easter would allow them to commence a clubhouse refurbishment. In Banbridge, they had planned to raise money while paying tribute to former Ireland captain Rory Best last April, but the fund for upgrading the changing rooms and function room remains low on liquidity.

***

Just as the rest of us have virtually made a second home or office on Zoom these past 12 months, clubs have been endeavouring to remain embedded in the community by using technology in place of physical engagement to make sure members and neighbours alike keep the club in mind.

Skerries are currently conducting a position-by-position poll on social media to determine their all-time XV, while a host of clubs with a good stock of footage are driving engagement by jogging positive memories with clips from the highlight reel.

The hope is that a click to like may soon turn into a click to contribute and clubs around the island have gone about raising money both for their own use and also to pay forward into the community around them.

GoFundMe or JustGiving pages have been set up by many clubs raising funds to channel into local charities and frontline healthcare. Direct funding for the club was able to take place by more traditional means in the lead up to Christmas when familiar raffle tickets were in circulation, but for most of the year online club lottos have given enormous comfort. Sligo have recently tapped that source, but it’s still a mere trickle of lifeblood for now after launching last month.

Bills may be relatively meagre when the lights and hot water are not running daily, but they keep coming and many clubs also had staff to consider.

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“We’re very fortunate up here to have the furlough scheme,” says media and marketing convener for Banbridge RFC, Marc Eadie.

“We employed some coaches, a physio and club steward so we were fortunate to get them straight onto furlough. There was literally nothing coming in, not a penny. Now, we were fortunate then that our main sponsors kept the money coming in. But we don’t know how that’s going to affect us next year.”

For clubs fortunate enough to feel confident that their sponsors will continue to come back and support them, this past year has in fact presented an opportunity to take on some upgrades. Rugby grounds have seen alterations out of necessity to meet Covid prevention needs, security in the form of CCTV where dormant clubs sit at the end of long lanes and away from casual view. The future legacy of a club’s place in a community cannot be neglected either.

In Skerries, the major investment of recent years was the €600,000 artificial surface that backs up against their windswept Holmpatrick field. Heeney is proud to say that, through National Lottery grants, fundraising and donations, the club’s debt on the venture is down into five figures and a further grant leaves them in a position to go about installing new floodlights in the coming months.

Shannon, whose community and sponsors alike were last week boosted by the go-ahead for a new road that will open up Moyross and connect to Limerick’s northside, are looking to strengthen their presence in the grassroots by creating a biodiversity walkway around their 25-acre playing fields in Coonagh, with local schools invited to use the facility.

While not all clubs can plan for physical changes around their grounds, the abundance of time has allowed most to look at structures of a different ilk.

“Do you know something, we have time for reflection,” says Healy as he rests on a positive note, “we’ve put in more systems, financial boards have been set up in the club, we’ve put in place new coaching structures within the club for the underage for the whole club.

“Because we have the time, we’re not running after our tails with 18 matches of AIL, worrying about going up or down, injuries, ‘can we afford the €5,000 for a trip to Ballynahinch?’”

Fundraising and grants may have kept many wheels in motion for clubs, but the most crucial form of income is the most sustainable. Clubs who spoke with The42 for this article were immensely grateful for the continuity in membership fees despite being unable to offer much in the way of activity last year.

“We got a good chunk of our membership (fees) in and there hasn’t been – or I haven’t heard any grumbling – from people that paid membership back in August or September, but got very little out of it in return,” says Shovelin.

“I don’t think we’d be able to refund it if people did come looking for it. Apart from the logistics, I just don’t think we could afford to. Hopefully we can reward members for that goodwill when things do open up.”

The sentiment is exactly the same across the island.

“We were a bit concerned that we wouldn’t get that, but I have to say the level of support is fantastic,” says Heeney.

“Hopefully next September we’ll get it again because maybe we’ll have plotted some way out of this.”

hand-sanitisers-at-the-game Nenagh Ormond's stand, complete with hand sanitisers for a Community Series match last year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The way out remains a long and winding road.

This week’s opening run of vaccinations for over 85s makes the future look all the brighter, but all eyes will be on the government’s updated Living With Covid plan when it is published next week.

Whatever the advice may be, no club is of a mood to blithely rush headlong back into business, no matter how tight the pinch of the last year.. There is acceptance across the island that organised sport will have to walk before it can run freely and a willingness to go again for 2021/22 with the plan that was abandoned for 2020/21.

The Community Series that was to replace half the All-Ireland League competition in September was a welcome initiative with clubs, however briefly, enjoying the renewal of rivalries against teams who share geography, but not divisions. Moreover, from a health viewpoint, a club who has surveyed players on the matter showed little appetite to travel and play outside their own province.

For some, the prospect of an away fixture against counterparts in Northern Ireland would  instill a level of anxiety given that the island’s separate jurisdictions have shown to suffer Covid caseload accelerations at different levels, with each government sometimes handing down differing health guidance and constraints.

If rules anywhere on the island advise against something as simple as players hanging around a venue long enough to shower and change post-match, persisting with rugby under restrictions is hard to fathom.

The more vaccinated people around, the better the landscape will look. But as long as people are waiting for some of Pfizer’s finest, the Moderna miracle cure, or Johnson and Johnson’s single jab, fit and healthy people can still potentially unknowingly spread the virus. Social distancing is an impossible task in contact sport, let alone one that invites 16 people to squeeze into a three-metre-wide scrum several times a game.

“Rugby is going to change dramatically,” says Heeney, who is hoping to see his coastal club back working at the height of summer.

“Things like touch rugby, seven a side, 10-a-side. I don’t think we’re going to be able to walk back into a 15-a-side game and at this stage we’re not looking at anything happening this season.”

There is an added benefit of rugby in a format that allows for multiple matches in day, a festival feel around the fields that could help clubs make up for a little lost time as soon as the Nphet levels allow.

“In June, July and August, the facility we have, if we get weather like we got last year, we can open that clubhouse for touch rugby, for tag, you name it and have a barbecue, have a few beers – if we can ever get to that stage. That’s what we’re looking at.

“The positive side of this is we’re looking to put some seating outside around the clubhouse. We’re also looking at doing work around the bar. We’ve a big area upstairs outside, but we’ve a bit of work to do. We’re trying to reinvent ourselves for Covid to have outside space we can use. I’d be hopeful we can do that in the next few months to enable to us to be ready to go as soon as we can get back on our feet.”

There is another alluring appeal to summer rugby too. Particularly if 2021’s coronavirus pattern looks anything like 2020 and numbers rise again approaching winter months, when the healthcare system has traditionally creaked under the weight of highly-infectious, if not as fatal as Covid-19, diseases. Clubs, one representative suggested, could run off a slate of games from August to October. Then, if  the healthcare system was back under pressure, the game could be put back in cold storage for the winter.

Whatever form the road back takes, the custodians of rugby clubs around the island are happy to adapt to the changing landscape, to wait until the path is safe, content to channel planning efforts into the club’s future rather week-to-week fixtures and hopeful that some day soon they can get a big group together.

Nearby, if not within, the club walls.

“We’re not enjoying it, but we’re doing things right for the future of the club,” says Healy.

“For our mental health, we all could do with being on the back pitch in Thomond Park or going up to Dublin for a Saturday. We miss the craic and the social interaction, but we’re working ahead.

“We’re coping well. We’re all happy because we don’t see each other. The minute we see each other there’ll be a big argument.

“And it’ll be the best argument of all time.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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