Amateur competition is still the lifeblood to success at highest level
WITH the RBS 6 Nations centre-stage and Ulster continuing to plough on in the RaboDirect PRO12, it is all too easy to forget that there is rugby – any amount of it – other than the high-profile professional version.
Those dismissive of the non-professional level are overlooking core values and the fact that, for well over a century, rugby union was a wholly amateur code played, coached and watched for no reason other than pure love of the game.
Hopefully the next few weeks will serve as a reminder that there is a lot more to a tree than its top branch which could not exist but for the roots and trunk below.
Yes, the Six Nations tournament is building towards a fascinating climax. And yes, away from the international arena, Ulster's ongoing pursuit of a place in the PRO12 play-offs will continue to command media air time and fill column inches.
But, as a rugby journalist, I admit to a pang of guilt in the past couple of days when, post-England v Ireland at Twickenham and pre-Ulster v NG Dragons at Ravenhill, I paused for long enough to check the domestic fixtures list.
Take this week; today there are Danske Bank Schools' 2nd XV Cup, Schools' 2nd XV Plate, 3rd XV Cup and Plate games and a Danske Bank Schools' Trophy final. The High Schools' Trophy final is on Friday.
On Saturday, all 12 of the province's senior clubs will be Ulster Bank League action.
Further down the ladder their 2nd, 3rd and 4th XVs – and in Ballynahinch's case, 5th, XV – will be playing, too.
Youth sides can be added to these, ranging from under-19s down to under-13s, plus thousands of mini-rugby youngsters togged out for action. Simultaneously, there are two Danske Bank Medallion Shield semi-finals.
Easter Monday, just under two months away, will see an all-country Powerade Towns Cup final on April 21, the semi-final draw having pitted Ballymena II against Clogher Valley, with Ballynahinch hosting Donaghadee on March 29.
In contrast, there are two all-Belfast pairings in the semi-finals of the McCrea Cup, with Cooke hosting Grosvenor, while CIYMS will welcome Instonians II.
As I said at the outset, there's a lot more to rugby than how Ireland and Ulster are faring.