David Corkery: Covid has exposed huge flaws threatening Irish rugby

Club game is under severe pressure due to player drop off between 17 and 20
David Corkery: Covid has exposed huge flaws threatening Irish rugby

Peter O'Mahony, defence coach JP Ferreira and head coach Johann van Graan at training. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

AS the rugby calendar crumbles away and the impact of Covid-19 bites, the question of whether or not we will ever get back to sporting normality — with spectators — must be raised.

Let’s look at the ramifications for amateur clubs. Long before coronavirus, many were struggling to field a single team every weekend.

Where once, mid-week training dressing rooms were unable to deal with the swarms of boisterous players looking to get changed, there now lie empty and lonely voids behind closed doors.

Pre-lockdown, if any club had to open more than one changing room on a training night, they could count themselves lucky. The days of clubs fielding five or six senior teams on a weekend were already gone.

It’s like the Pied Piper wandered into all the rugby grounds around the country and lured away any player between the ages of 17 and 20. The drop-off rate at this age group is massive and, for most clubs, fielding an U20 side is something they dream about.

Modern society, with all its distractions and pressures and alternative activities, has a lot to answer for these players hanging up their boots at such a young age. Add the pandemic to the mix and that exodus will only increase.

Do the Irish Rugby Football Union care?

Schools in this country are the biggest contributors of players to the professional game, so you would think the policymakers would make sure they have all the back-up and support they need.

However, when the IRFU’s high-performance director, David Nucifora, was asked about the schools, his answer was that he was too busy running the professional game to talk about them.

So, if this is how the schools are viewed, you can only imagine what the IRFU think about the amateur clubs. They are making a serious mistake.

Yes, the professional game generates the bulk of the IRFU revenue. Yet, if you neglect the grounds that introduce the players to schools and universities, the pitches around the country will turn to dust bowls or be sold off for new housing schemes.

Munster’s Billy Holland wearing a mask as part of Covid protocols before the recent Pro14 rugby game in Ulster. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Munster’s Billy Holland wearing a mask as part of Covid protocols before the recent Pro14 rugby game in Ulster. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

There’s little or no funding for amateur clubs, which don’t have a product to sell to their sponsors or a few Six Nations tickets to offer in return for their support. The future for club rugby is bleak.

I can’t see the All-Ireland League being played this season. Nor do I think it should be.

The season is already a mess and with the Northern Ireland clubs operating under different Covid-19 regulations and protocols, it would be impossible to run it off without multiple cancellations and grave health concerns.

All the players in the AIL and junior leagues around the country play rugby as a hobby. For many, rugby appears somewhere in their pecking order after work, college, family, relationships, birthdays, watching the Champions League, and having a few pints.

So, if they think that their health and the health of their families could be compromised, the last thing they will be looking for on a Tuesday or Thursday evening will be their boots.

The sooner the IRFU draws a line through this season, the sooner the clubs can start preparing for the 2021-2022 campaign and everyone can get on with the other aspects of their lives. At that point, you would like to think that the vaccine will have filtered its way down to the sporting population and life might have returned to some kind of normality.

The news that the Six Nations will probably go ahead eases the pain of the Heineken Champions Cup postponement. However, I do feel incredibly sad for the U20 and women’s national teams.

Robbie Henshaw is tackled by Paolo Garbisi and Bundee Aki during the Guinness Six Nations last October. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw is tackled by Paolo Garbisi and Bundee Aki during the Guinness Six Nations last October. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

To reach the Everest of your chosen sport takes incredible commitment and sacrifice, and for that dream of pulling your national jersey over your head to be so cruelly taken from you will be a lifelong sadness.

The other news is that the IRFU is in line for a significant cash injection, as a deal with private-equity firm CVC Capital Partners nears completion.

The IRFU will receive an estimated €56m from the €408m deal to take a 14.5% stake in the tournament. While no deal has been reached, a union spokesman said “discussions are progressing well”.

This will keep the IRFU’s accountants happy, but, in return, it will likely see the tournament taken off free-to-air television from next year, which is very sad news indeed.

We still have some time to go in this battle against a disease that we know very little about and all we can do is stay as respectful towards our fellow human beings as possible.

I guess the sacrifices we are making on the sporting front are rather insignificant given the numbers of lives that are being lost every day. When things return to normality, we will all be that little bit more appreciative of the things we took for granted.

Stay safe.

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