Clubs get Hobson's choice on fixtures
Last week the IRFU announced two possible fixture list options which AIL clubs must choose between. Those blueprints embrace the proposals for the dates of the clubs' fixtures in the AIB League, the Heineken European and provincial cups, Celtic League and representative matches.
They are but part of an ongoing examination of changes in playing structures, not alone in this country but throughout the six nations. The IRFU perspective on the proposals is, of course, influenced by the intention to enter the Celtic League next season.
The IRFU have stipulated that one or other fixture option must be accepted and that it will stand for the next two seasons. They also announced the structure of the AIL divisions will remain in place. So that means 16 teams in the first division.
The reason for a 16-team first division is so all provinces will be represented in the top division. That is a commendable objective. But the reality is we do not have 16 teams of first division standard. Some clubs' difficulties in the top division will surely be reflected in a drop of interest and low attendances as the league progresses.
It is ironic we have 16 first division clubs and in England they have 12. There was an acrimonious debate there when some first division clubs wanted it reduced to 10, but in the end they were prevailed upon to leave it at 12 from an original 14. Yet even now the arguments continue about automatic relegation for the bottom club and automatic promotion for the winners of the second division. We have had threats of court action as the first division clubs want a play off between the bottom club in the top division and the winners of the second.
Thankfully, matters have not reached that state of acrimony here but there is no doubt the Celtic League will make life more difficult for the Irish clubs. It will also mean reducing the Interprovincial Championship to three matches for each province and thus end the very successful home and away series.
As the clubs here decide which option they want in relation to the starting point for the league, one official has described the situation as "Hobson's choice." The IRFU director of rugby, Eddie Wigglesworth, said: "We need a strong, vibrant domestic league." Well he is right, but in order to get it, we also need the right structure.
On the Celtic League issue, one must express the hope it will be more successful than the Welsh-Scottish League. Attendances at some of the matches in that competition have been disappointing. Last weekend, for instance, 1,200 turned up to watch Glasgow Caledonians play Llanelli in Perth. The Welsh complain, too, that the Scots just do not travel to support their teams. But the issue goes beyond that. Swansea, who top the league, drew just 1,500 for their home match against Cross Keyes. Only Newport (5,000) and Cardiff (4,000) drew attendances of any consequence.
One wonders if the crowds will go in any real numbers to Celtic League matches. Bear in mind supporters will be travelling for away matches in the European Cup and supporters, however enthusiastic, do not have endless resources. No announcement has been made about a sponsor for the Celtic League or the television coverage. Both are essential. I gather negotiations are at an advanced stage. Syd Millar, one of Ireland's International Board representatives, is optimistic. "The commercial prospects on those issues are very positive and will be acceptable," he said. Let us hope he is right. One other very unsatisfactory aspect of the Welsh-Scottish League is, if the two Scottish representatives finish last and second last they would not be relegated, while the Welsh clubs finishing ninth and 10th would be. How will such issues be managed in the Celtic League?
The IRFU are embracing the Celtic League because they want to stay close to Wales and Scotland and all three see the Celtic alliance as a very necessary strength in these times when all sorts of deals can be done between nations. Isolation is not a very appealing prospect. Nor has it gone unnoticed that representatives from some English, Welsh and French clubs recently met in France.
On the international front, the Six Nations unions must also make a decision on the placing on the calendar of the Six Nations Championship, and its duration. The Southern hemisphere countries' suggestion that the season here should be turned round to coincide with their their season is a non-starter. Nor will the Six Nations series be switched to May-June as suggested in the past from Twickenham. Apparently, a study on that produced evidence to concentrate the minds - like a 40 per cent drop in revenue, not to mention all the other difficulties it would present.
But what seems very likely to happen is the championship, currently run over 10 weeks, will be run off in seven weeks. That proposal will get the necessary support from the majority of the countries. That is likely to mean countries playing successive matches away from home instead of alternative home and away fixtures. But because of current television contracts no such change can come into operation before the 2003 championship. A seven week championship does have some merit and clubs will welcome it. Supporters, who make the trips to their countries' away matches annually, will not.