'The club game is absolutely the foundation on which the pro game is built'

The new provincial Energia Community Series kicks off around the country this weekend.

WHILE PROFESSIONAL RUGBY rolls on in Ireland with serious concerns over its finances, the club game returns to competition this weekend with excitement around the country at finally being back underway.

Club rugby, according to the IRFU’s Collie McEntee, is the “the foundation on which the pro game is built.”

McEntee moved into his role as the union’s director of rugby development last year – a quiet enough intro to the gig, so – and has been in the thick of getting things to the point that clubs begin the new provincial Energia Community Series this weekend.

michael-ferguson Bangor’s Michael Ferguson in their clash with Tullamore back in February. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The plan is for a condensed All-Ireland League campaign – without promotion or relegation – to follow from January onwards, but everyone is aware that Covid-19 will have a say in all of this going ahead or otherwise. Fingers are crossed all over clubland.

If the professional game is having financial trouble, club rugby is no different. No games, so no supporters, no takings at the club bar, no social events, no renting out of club facilities – no income. But McEntee says he’s been blown away by the energy and determination shown in the clubs.

“They’re a creative bunch and one thing I’ve found about our clubs is that they’re really, really resilient,” says McEntee, who togged out for Naas RFC, Greystones, and Lansdowne in his own playing days, as well as Leinster and Ireland A. He’s been with the IRFU since 1998 in a range of development roles.

Back in March, the IRFU announced a €500,000 fund for the club game, although a cap of €5,000 per club meant it didn’t amount to much when shared around.

McEntee points out that the union distributed PPE gear and ran fundraising webinars but he says “the clubs themselves drove many of the best ideas” and highlights the huge role played by volunteers in getting training going again as the restrictions gradually allowed that to happen.

“We needed people on the ground and they delivered. Volunteers in the clubs have been immense.”

The clubs had been left looking for light at the end of the tunnel since the 2019/20 AIL season was cancelled in March, and it duly arrived in July as the new format was confirmed for 2020/21. 

The provincial Energia Community Series will run from this weekend until mid-December, with two men’s conferences in Leinster, Munster, and Ulster, and one in Connacht. The women’s Series – which starts on 3 October – has two conferences in Munster and Connacht, with one each in Leinster and Ulster.

ronan-foley-with-angus-lloyd-and-ruadhan-byron UCD's Ronan Foley carrying against Clontarf. Brian Reilly-Troy / INPHO Brian Reilly-Troy / INPHO / INPHO

The AIL will only get underway in January 2021, running until May and consisting of only nine regular-season fixtures plus semi-finals and a final.

“Initially, there were questions about why we couldn’t play a full season,” says McEntee of the new format. “We never wanted to prevent a normal season from happening but with Covid, you’re trying to think about the ‘what ifs’ and what might happen locally.

“If we had gone straight into a full-blown AIL, we’d be wondering this week about how much of a challenge that would be.”

As for the issue of no promotion or relegation, which has caused serious frustration in several clubs, McEntee says:

“The reality is there will be clubs impacted by Covid, we’ve seen that in every other sport that has restarted. Therefore, if you got relegated because you couldn’t field a team and you could be gone, that’s not fair.

“We would love not to have made that decision. I know first-hand from coaching in the All-Ireland League and getting to a play-off, the amount of time and effort that you put into it. We absolutely get that frustration, but we’re in different times now and we’ve got to try and make the best decisions.”

Trophies will still be on the line, while McEntee points out that performances in the Community Series will count towards making the Bateman Cup, Plates, and Shield competitions in the second part of the season. 

“Local games, local rivalry, the clubs are getting excited about it,” he says of the Series.

If the format works and the feedback is good, McEntee says it could stay beyond Covid, but he laughs as he also acknowledges that “if it turns out to be a disaster, we have to accept that and change again.”

the-cork-constitution-team-celebrate-with-the-trophy Cork Con will be targetting more silverware this season. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

It’s certainly going to look different and the fact that teams can’t use changing rooms before and after games will cause real challenges given the Irish weather.

McEntee admits that “it’s absolutely going to be a disrupted season until we get a vaccine” and cancelled games will go down as draws. 

Unfortunately, the Series won’t feature any players contracted to the provinces at academy, development, or senior level as the professional game does its best to keep something of a ‘bubble’ intact and avoid the much-feared situation of having to cancel any games.

The situation will be reviewed as the months progress but A matches are set to provide a playing outlet for the province’s youngsters.

“We all know the need for the professional game to drive on,” says McEntee. “At the pro level, there’s that block of autumn internationals and the Pro14 at the same time, so in some environments that means more demand on the academy players.

“If you’re an academy player playing in the Community Series, training with your club one day and then you get called up to the province’s senior squad, it’s hard to manage that close contact stuff. It’s probably a needs-must and what happened in Ulster probably focused it to say ‘let’s keep the bubble.’

“The A games are only for contracted players and not for community-based players, so that gives us certainty clubs won’t lose players that way. It’s hard for the provinces to manage a bubble when you’re letting players in and out of it.”

a-view-of-a-ruck Club rugby makes a welcome competitive return this weekend. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The hope is that things might be different post-Christmas but the reality is no one can accurately predict the situation at that point. For now, it’s all about getting up and running with the Community Series across the four provinces. 

Whenever we do put Covid behind us, McEntee stresses that the club game will continue to be a vital part of Irish rugby as it looks to rebuild thereafter.

“I have been on the professional side, I’ve been in the club game, I’ve been a coach,” says McEntee.

“One can’t operate without the other. To try to create a void is the wrong thing to do. The club game creates that player pool. It develops and nurtures players and creates opportunities to be spotted.

“I know from my experience of being around eight or nine U20 World Cups, the players that had played in the All-Ireland League were far better equipped to manage that level of competition than those who hadn’t.

“When we talk about parallel playing structures, all our data will say, contrary to speculation, that academy players are used in the AIL. You need to see them play and sometimes it stretches and stresses some of the players, but you look at Jack Crowley from last season, he absolutely developed through the AIL platform and there are many others like that.

“The IRFU’s view is that the club game is absolutely the foundation on which the pro game is built. One will not survive without the other.

“If we don’t keep the club game relevant through this period, we could lose a generation of players for the pro game. That’s the challenge for us in the community game.

“The one driver for me coming in here was to create that safe, enjoyable environment so that irrespective of your experience or gender, there’s a place for you in rugby and that as you progress through, the opportunities connect to the high-performance game.”

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