Doctor's orders to cure club rugby's malaise
Dr Syd Millar, Ballymena’s 75-year old President, one of the best known names in world rugby, is concerned about what is happening at club level in Ireland.
“There is great concern with regards to the future of the club game at its highest level. It continues to be downgraded and the arrival of the British and Irish Cup will exasperate the problem,” he warns. “This competition, we are told, is necessary to give development players and fringe provincial players competitive rugby.
“There already is a vehicle to do this — the AIB League. Players who are regarded as having potential should be kept with the clubs to produce a quality competition.
“If the current brand continues to be diminished, sponsors, supporters and volunteers will walk away.”
He is not impressed by the decision to split Division One of the AIB League into upper and lower strata.
“Dividing the top 16 into two 8s was only tinkering with the problem,” he says. “Young players learn by playing with and against experienced players, not sitting on benches.
“We have got an imbalance in our rugby and this needs to be corrected or else we will pay dearly in the future. Better to encourage and help fund good coaching at club level, with players spending most of their time in a club jersey,” he advises.
Rightly or wrongly in Ulster there is a widely-held view that the club game has picked up a hefty tab for professional rugby, a belief which has given rise to deep despair and much frustration. Certainly Dungannon share it.
The inescapable truth, however, is that the game has changed beyond recognition since the introduction of professionalism. Whether or not professionalism is or ever was desirable is an altogether different matter for another day. At this stage let’s concentrate on the here and now.
Fact: the old way of doing things has gone. That particular genie is out of the bottle and won’t be going back in.
Fact: Like it or loathe it, professional rugby is here and no amount of wishing that it wasn’t, will change that reality.
So at this stage it’s about acceptance of that reality and trying to find agreement on how best to serve the interests of each of the various parties, namely the IRFU, the Ulster Branch and the Province’s clubs.
Indeed, Ulster Rugby’s outgoing Chief Executive Mike Reid is confident that a new status quo may already be in place. Having spent a decade on the receiving end of the clubs’ criticism, he has long sought to draw a line under the issue. Now he paints an optimistic picture, suggesting that things have mellowed to a point where most of the previous misunderstanding and hostility has disappeared.
Not that all of it came from the top guns like Ballymena and Dungannon; he recalls having had to endure stick at the homes of some clubs less affected by Ulster calls. And some not affected at all, for he has had to run the gauntlet at Minor League level, too.
He has been ‘neck-braced’ in a few clubhouses. Saturday afternoons when he went out to enjoy a match haven’t always been enjoyable experiences.
“Here he is - down to steal our players,” is a remark he has had heard more than once. “Half of it is tongue in cheek, but half of it isn’t,” he says.
But there is also an acceptance — and one senses it is totally genuine — of the frustration felt when players are called away in circumstances which have not always made sense to their clubs.
“I was a coach myself at Collegians, so I can understand all of that,” Reid acknowledges. “And I know what it means when Declan Kidney tells Ulster that he needs us to give Stephen Ferris a rest and we have to do that. The bottom line is that at the end of the day Brian McLaughlin’s freedom to select players for Ulster comes second to the needs of the national coach.
“And we’re doing the same thing to clubs. If we’ve got a big game next week we may need three props. In fact, under a new directive we may need four, which means us going to a club to take a player who may or may not play. The club can’t see why, but the reality is that we are required to have a defined Heineken Cup squad from October through until January and we aren’t allowed to bring others into it.
“So if we get an injury, we have a problem. Because if you only have two props and one of them gets injured we can’t call somebody else in. Most of our difficulties with the clubs are during the ERC period of the season.
“That’s the difficulty and I understand why clubs get frustrated. If I was a club coach — and I have been — I’d be exactly the same.
“But things between Ulster Rugby and the clubs have improved a lot.
“There aren’t the battles between ourselves and the clubs as there used to be, though I suppose it’s inevitable that where two or even three parties share a resource - in this case, a player - then from time to time there is going to be friction. Just as the clubs have a relationship with us and vice-versa, we have a relationship with the IRFU. So if Dublin tell us when we can and can’t use certain players, we have to comply.
“We have all had to learn to live with that and I think there has been real progress in that respect. In the past the clubs used to be upset about what they saw as Ulster calls for ‘our players’. Thankfully we’ve all moved on. Last year there were no complaints or issues with the clubs over players.”