IRFU at least has game in control


HE necessity for amendment in the Insurance Corporation All Ireland League and the benefits, financial and otherwise, of European participation, have been very evident and few in the game in this country would offer arguments against such developments. The manner of the league amendments have not, however been received with enthusiasm by everyone. European participation is as contentious in some respects as the mentioning of BSE.

People can be very selective and subjective in what they want to remember and what they conveniently or otherwise choose to forget. And one point that must be made in relation to the new set up next season in the All Ireland League is that at least the clubs know where they stand in relation to the numerical make up of the first and second divisions.

There are indications that support for a third division, north and south, rather than a third and, fourth division, is waning. There would be benefits in putting that in place, not least with regard to avoiding long and expensive travel costs. But there are other factors that have to be taken into consideration, such as the geographical spread of the teams involved, and obviously that could vary appreciably from season to season.

I understand that the Connacht Branch have informed the IRFU that they favour a third and fourth division and that too, is apparently the view in Munster. I gather that Leinster and Ulster would also favour a third and fourth division. The matter will be decided at the IRFU meeting on Friday week and the union will go along with the wishes of the majority on the issue. There will be four new clubs in the league next season. Three have already qualified Richmond (Munster), Suttonians (Leinster) and Creggs (Connacht). The outcome in Ulster has not been decided.

One point that is worth making is the responsible manner in which the Irish clubs have acted in their dealings with the IRFU. What a contrast to the shambles that is now the case in England, not alone on European participation but on the set up in their own domestic league. It seems as a struggle for control of the game between a few big clubs backed by a few millionaire businessmen who have just come into the game and seek to control it.

Sir John Hall, he who has taken over the Newcastle Gosforth club, has made some contentious and a few revealing statements that clearly indicate his real lack of concern for the game and appreciation of what it means, and has meant, to so many. Let us not ignore some of the statements. They are not just about what is happening on another island and in another country. Does it not really matter what happened recently in Birmingham at the special general meeting called by the English Rugby Union (RFU).

Sir John told the world last week "Club rugby and European rugby is going to be the most exciting element of the game. The internationals will be just an add on." The people who run Sky television, whose money hangs over rugby like a big grey cloud, know well as we all know that the International Championship has, and will continue to have, the biggest drawing power in attendances and, as that greater custodian of sporting tradition Rupert Murdoch knows so well, television audiences. That is why Sky want the Five Nations Championship and will not now underwrite any rebel leagues. European or other wise.

What is happening in England does impinge on the game here and that scarcely needs elaboration. It is a tremendous indictment not alone on the activities of a small minority of clubs but also on the inability of the RFU to handle the situation. The meetings are ongoing, the statements come regularly and the problems are not yet resolved. Is that what we want here?

The chaos was summed up extremely well by one club official at the weekend. "We do not, know what division we will be in next season, because we do not know whether there will 10 or 12 clubs in division one and whether there will be relegation or not. It is utter chaos and a ludicrous position and we are now in well into the month of April." The first division clubs, it seems, do not want relegation and want a 12 club first division.

PERHAPS those who complained when the IRFU announced the league structure for next season some weeks ago might bear that in mind. The suggestion that the IRFU should have waited until the league had been completed before announcing that there would be no relegation from the first and second division (because of their enlargement next season) was off the mark.

We were told that clubs with no chance of winning the leagues and in no danger of relegation would not be competitive. Results particularly last weekend provided the answer to that. Were Young Munster, Ballymena and Lansdowne, all out of contention for the league, competitive last Saturday against title contenders? Of course they were, because clubs of that calibre and stature know no other way.

Every league reaches a point near its closing stages where clubs will be playing who cannot win the title or are free from relegation. Pride makes clubs want to win competitive matches. Not so long ago most of the club season in this country was made up of non competitive matches. There are some short memories around.

In conclusion and in the midst of the debates here and elsewhere in these islands on domestic leagues and European competition, it is worth bearing in mind what was said at the annual general meeting of the IRFU last June. The outgoing president Ken Reid and the incoming president Syd Millar both stressed that there was a need for change in the AIL and that Irish players needed to be exposed more regularly, at least at provincial level, to a higher standard of competition.

At that time the European Cup that subsequently took place this season was no more than a remote possibility. Indeed, on even the possibility of a European Cup taking place this season, there was considerable skepticism expressed by some. One commentator, now very vociferous on the European issue, described it as "pie in the sky."

The IRFU was at the forefront of establishing the European Cup and gave it full hearted support and commitment when some of those here and across the water, now shouting the odds on the issue and stressing how necessary it is, doubted the very concept of such a competition. Remember some of the statements on the issue that emanated from Twickenham for instance?

Of course at that stage Sir John Hall's sporting interests were cent red on trying to make Newcastle United into a side that could prove a match for the real aristocrats of English soccer, such as Arsenal. He has some way to go in that and even further to go in making Newcastle Gosforth a match for the best in club rugby, even at domestic level. I will leave the case rest.