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Professional power has put the squeeze on Ireland's once-vibrant club rugby scene

“The top of the game is very strong, but the bit in the middle, the clubs, are struggling badly.”
Feb 2nd 2017, 8:00 AM 8,832 10

This is part of The42′s Class of 95 series, a week-long examination of professional rugby in Ireland.

Packo Fitzgerald Packo Fitzgerald gets to grips with Swansea. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“WHEN MUNSTER PLAYED Swansea in the province’s first ever European Cup tie in November 1995, a crowd of 5,000 witnessed proceedings at Thomond Park,” writes Dr Liam O’Callaghan in his comprehensive work, Rugby in Munster: A social and cultural history.

“Just six months earlier 6,500 people had witnessed Shannon and Young Munster play out a 3-3 draw in an early round of the Munster Senior Cup…”

Times have most certainly changed.

The introduction of the All-Ireland League in 1990 heralded a boom era for club rugby in Ireland. Provincial borders were broken down, rivalries found new horizons and, with the pre-tournament wisdom pointing to Wanderers and Ballymena as the teams set to dominate, grist was poured onto the mill in the southern province.

Armed with that injustice, Munster clubs dominated the national competition and won the first nine outright. And within Munster, it was a trophy that Limerick coveted more than any other place on the island, the city combined to string together seven titles thanks to Garryowen (twice), Young Munster and of course the four-in-a-row Shannon team with Anthony Foley at its heart.

“Teams were just more competitive in Limerick,” O’Callaghan tells The42.

They were nurtured on inter-parish rivalries between the likes of Garryowen, Young Munsters, Shannon and all the rest of it. They just had that competitive edge when this competition came on stream.

“And in some ways there was a reaction to what was being said in the Dublin press at the time. In the first season, Wanderers were expected to run away with it and in fact got relegated. Munster teams would be reading this and nurturing a sense of grievance, an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality that really Munster adopted to some extent afterwards.”

General View of a ball and hands 18/2/2006

The success, expectation and crowds swelled in unison in Limerick, and the city made itself an emblem for the sport. Attendances of 5,000 became a relatively low watermark. Three times that figure or a packed Thomond Park was a presumption for a Limerick derby or a late-season tussle with a visiting club from Dublin.

“When you consider that’s a city of 70,000, it’s a huge crowd in per capita terms,” notes O’Callaghan, “in a sport which – on broader terms in the county of Limerick, was quite obscure.

“You’d have huge crowds and great excitement, magnificent atmosphere. The whole thing was very vibrant.

That was a product of the game’s history in Limerick (city) where it was a popular game among all classes — that’s not a myth, that’s the truth.

“It was ‘the city’s game’ as such. GAA in Limerick was weak at that time, it’s become strong in the last six years, but at that time rugby was the number one sport for young men in all areas of the city.”

These days, Shannon are at the bottom end of Ulster Bank League division 1b and Garryowen secretary Eoghan Prendergast laments the absence of a more recent fixture against their great rival to gauge modern attendances:

“The equivalent match a couple of years ago you’d get maybe 1,200 – a fraction of the crowd in the olden days. That’s sad really.”

The drop-off from the high tide is felt acutely in all corners of the island. Away from Limerick there are visible remnants of an era when clubs could afford to be positive and literally build to meet the demand of their footfall.

“If it’s against a Munster team who might not travel with many supporters, you might get 500 people. With the exception of Terenure, a big local derby , you might get 2-3,000 at it. In the early 90s we’d be getting 4-5000,” says former St Mary’s RFC president Declan Fanning.

“The ground was full regularly. That created some legacy issues. We invested in the ground, put in new terraces and things which seemed like the right thing to do. That’s used very infrequently now, but it still had to be paid for.”

Those long-forgotten European Cup matches in November 1995 were far from an immediate threat to a thriving club scene. But as professionalism seeped further into the fabric of provincial rugby, players had a choice to make: how serious were they about making a living from rugby?

The attraction was clear in the 90s. Clubs teams boasted players of the highest calibre with international and provincial caps to prove it. Albeit the latter honour was a considered by many to be a sideshow to the serious business of AIL matches.

The AIL in its early years was very similar to inter-provincial level. Maybe just below it,” says Fanning, who was a powerful number eight for Leinster in the 1980s and continued playing well beyond that for St Mary’s.

“I would have played in our first team with five or six internationals on a weekly basis. Now, with the exception of Jack McGrath or Johnny Sexton, who do a year or two with us, you find fellas go straight to the academies and don’t go through clubs at all.”

Jack McGrath Ireland prop Jack McGrath in AIL action. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The change came from the provinces’ and their quest to break Europe. Ulster took a European crown in 1999 and Munster’s heartbreak a year later fuelled a veritable love affair. That was the stage players wanted to be on: professional European rugby, in the spotlight and just one step shy of the international grade.

In an effort to keep their athletes fresh and ready to fire when they were needed, provinces gained the power to keep players in-house rather than playing club-level matches week-in, week-out. ‘A teams’ became the preferred proving ground for a province to blend academy stars and fringe seniors.

As a consequence, it’s increasingly rare to see an established senior pro dipping down to the amateur game and the future stars like Joey Carbery and Darren Sweetnam (who played on opposite sides in the 2016 UBL final) take the role of hidden gems because matches are played in front of such sparse crowds.

Paul O'Connell Paul O'Connell playing for Young Munster in 2010 as he built fitness on return from injury. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Indeed, interest in the first team contests have dwindled on both sides of white line.

“The game fundamentally, adult rugby in particular, is diminishing on a yearly basis,” laments Fanning, whose son Darragh played for Connacht and Leinster before retiring last year.

AIL and first-team rugby was incredibly strong at first-team level. But behind that as well there was a very strong junior game. Unfortunately what happened was that a lot of emphasis went onto first-team rugby, AIL and then morphed to provincial level. So the game became driven from the top down rather than the bottom up.”

“The top of the game is very strong: the Ireland team is very strong, the professional game and provinces are all very strong, schools rugby is very strong. But the bit in the middle, the clubs, are struggling badly.

“The playing base, there was a time we were fielding 11 or 12 adult sides. From U19s, first team down to a J8 and J9. Now we’re struggling to put out six sides - and we’d be one of the few clubs in Leinster fielding six senior sides.

“It’s a huge diminution of player base and what you’re finding is the schools game is a very elitist game. The schools players, particularly in the marquee schools, are essentially training and conditioned like professionals from about the age of 14. Of those, a number get picked into the academy, a few come on and play U20 rugby with us, but there is a huge fall-off after the U20 year of players playing the game for fun.”

Fun is a word that has become increasingly rare to find associated with amateur rugby as schools become better and better scale models of professional teams.

“They’re bringing what they perceive as the professional wisdom down into schools. But if a schools player comes out of school and doesn’t make the cut, they don’t always go back into a club. A lot do, but a lot just give up. Which is terrible because they perceive themselves to be failures,” observes Prendergast.

Fanning is concerned that rugby is on its way to becoming a ‘spectator sport’ only, while Prendergast holds out hope that bigger names can be released from provinces and allowed to stretch their legs on the original proving ground more often.

“Having a player pulled at 11.30 of a Friday night and then a guy doesn’t play anything that weekend and they end up looking at a wall in the gym when they’re much rather be out on a pitch.

“Match fitness isn’t just aerobic fitness, it’s getting the edges knocked off you and knowing how to get out of scrapes.”

The provinces will remain the second tier of Irish Rugby, but to paraphrase Dr O’Callaghan: there’s no point mourning the heyday of club rugby, because the progress to professionalism had to be made and Ireland’s World Rugby ranking at four is evidence that giant strides have been made for the top of the sport.

There’s no going back. No way to reset the clock to make another 90s club boom era. But there are people all over the country who remain passionate about their club from minis to senior UBL sides.

There is quality in the league that deserves to be witnessed.

‘It was rugby’s Wild West!’ – The difficult early years of professionalism

Shoulder to shoulder: why Ireland’s Call became the anthem for rugby’s new era

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Sean Farrell

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