The IRFU published their Club Sustainability Report last month, after a year of investigating the subject of payment to club players. While the central objective was addressing the development of what the report dubs a “pay for play” culture, the findings pose several questions about the general purpose of Irish club rugby, and where it is heading. The IRFU need to fully address these issues before imposing financial constraints and other criteria upon the clubs.
The report’s foreword includes mention that the Working Party (the committee in charge of conducting the report, including Billy Glynn and Ian McIlrath) members “had different perspectives on the future direction of club rugby.” Indeed, the report admits that its recommendations “were not endorsed unanimously by all members of the Working Party.” Clearly, this is a divisive issue and one that is going to take some time to be fully understood.
Regardless, the report’s recommendations have been taken on board by the IRFU and will be implemented from the 2014/15 season onwards. Amongst the changes, payments to club players will be prohibited, transfers will be strictly controlled and clubs will have to meet minimum qualifying criteria to earn involvement in the All Ireland League. Most of these changes have been explained in depth elsewhere in the media over the past week, so it’s not worth outlining each of them here.
What hasn’t really been explained or discussed is how these changes might affect club rugby in Ireland and those deeply involved in the game. The report mentions that “[f]or some time the IRFU has been working with stakeholders within schools and clubs in agreeing and defining the values of Irish Rugby.” Subsequently, those values have been listed as Integrity, Discipline, Inclusiveness, Excellence and Fun. On first reading it’s a balanced list, but when you really look at these values, there are inherent contradictions.
The report accepts that “the genie of professionalism is out of the bottle and cannot be replaced”. It also acknowledges that to remove all player payments “would be to militate against those clubs which have the desire to reward players and which have the necessary resources to do so.” But are the new changes not trying to replace that genie? The rulings are certain to militate against some clubs.
Two of the values mentioned above are Excellence and Discipline. The fact is that several Irish clubs run themselves in a professional way. Their players are disciplined in their pursuit of excellence. Supervised gym sessions, meetings with nutritionists and video analysis are part of the schedule. The time and effort that goes into it, particularly from players, surely deserves some reward? Does the IRFU want the All Ireland League to serve as a breeding ground for professional players? And if not, where is the playing space for those players who have professional ambitions?
Professional rugby has changed how amateur clubs and players see themselves. Sport at adult level has always been about winning, but professionalism has made it the priority. Some clubs are now aspiring to a “level which cannot be sustained.” That is backed up by the debt figures included in the IRFU’s report. But where do you draw the line for these ambitious clubs who are over-reaching? Aspiring for Excellence is one of the IRFU’s values. Can you really tell a club that they should focus on Inclusiveness and Fun rather than trying to rise as high as possible?
The transfer of players between clubs is one of the main focus points of the report. Player loyalty is suggested as vital, with the recommendation that players “should be encouraged to remain with their ‘mother’ club”. Much like the recent ruling at Munster Schools level on player transfers, this is a topic that needs more debate. Why should a talented player not seek to play at a higher level, to pursue Excellence as best he can? For that individual, would it not be more Fun to benefit from playing with better players and train under better coaches?
If the IRFU are going to clamp down on player transfers, then how do they offset the disgruntlement that might arise? Is there enough being done to ensure that coaching levels across the country are fulfilling the value of Excellence? If players are going to stay with their local club, are they really being given the chance to pursue their ambitions? The report suggests that payment to club coaches should continue, as long as it “encourages the recruitment and development of indigenous coaching expertise.” There’s another contradiction in that. Does payment to Irish players not encourage the development of indigenous playing expertise?
It’s a highly debatable topic and one that certainly needs further discussion. Some of the changes set to be implemented may be impossible to actually enforce. If last year’s rulings on non Irish-qualified player numbers at provincial level (and the subsequent lack of clarity) are anything to go by, then this subject is far from decided.
Please feel free to post your opinions on the proposed changes, the values of Irish club rugby and the direction you would like to see it going. It would be interesting to hear different perspectives on the matter, so leave a comment below.
Read the full IRFU Club Sustainability Report here.