Wednesday, June 01, 2005

While the Lions are Away, Domestic Rugby Faces Crisis

As Celtic rugby's elite enjoy the opening days of their relaxing sojourn in the Land of the Long White Cloud, their domestic game appears to be crumbling in their absence. On Tuesday last the Irish and Scottish representatives in th eCeltic Leauge, piqued at the controversial participation of the Welsh in next season's English cup competition, and following a spurned advance to the Italians, cancelled the competition for 2005-06.

The shape of club rugby in the northern hemisphere has in recent times appeared increasingly disjointed. The Heineken Cup, a flagship and a driving force for an extraordinary growth in the sport’s prominence and marketability has not seen a team from outside of France or England amongst its last six finalists. A tournament comprising of only six participating nations must have a broader base of contenders to retain its currently still extant sense of being a genuine marquee competition.

The central corruption within the European club rugby set-up, and as follows, within the expiring Celtic League arrangement, lies in the questionable integrity of a system in which there is such variance amongst the main nations regarding the fundamentals of player contract ownership, club versus country questions and attitude to the very tournaments they participate in.

There is sufficient difference in the practice of professional rugby in Ireland, where provincial players are centrally contracted by the IRFU, and, say, in France, where the clubs are all powerful, to place huge question marks over the ability of a coach at Leinster or Munster to genuinely enjoy anything approaching a level playing field with his Gallic counterparts.

The primacy of the international team is enshrined in Ireland, and the success of the national team in recent years testifies to that fact; but the concurrent attempts to establish a robust Celtic League have suffered as a result. Celtic League matches have too often been used as conditioning exercises for idle internationals in the run-up to Heineken Cup or international matches, and the validity of the competition has been therefore compromised. It follows that its attempts to attract adequate sponsorship and media interests were also affected.

So while there was much consternation in Ireland and Scotland when the Welsh regions jumped in with the revamped Anglo-Welsh Powergen Cup, one can understand their desire to partake in a domestic competition that provided a genuine competitive environment for their teams, rather than the often somnambulant surrounds of the Celtic League.

There has been much casting of blame between the protagonists since the 2005-06 Celtic League was cancelled, but whether one deems either Irish apathy or Welsh skulduggery to be the cause of its demise, the lack of a unifying mission within the Celtic League’s participants has proved ultimately fatal. Quite where the Irish, Scots and Welsh will enjoy the requisite level of competition that both challenges their players and entertains supporters is questionable.

There are broader questions for northern hemisphere club rugby that must soon be addressed. Domestic rugby in England and France appears strong, well attended and evidently successful. Their clubs of course own their own players contracts and their national teams suffer only marginally due to the large player pools available. But the Heineken Cup as been the single most inspiring element in modern club rugby, and one feels that if it is to remain the blue riband event it has become, a synchronisation must occur within the structures of the game to ensure that all of the participating nations have representatives that are competitive in the tournament, and that the correct balance is struck with the international game.

It is difficult at the moment in this country to imagine the IRFU loosening its central grip. One wonders though, if our provinces (in particular Munster, who perhaps more than any other single club have redefined the way the game is supported in the professional era) were to slip into European obscurity, and those magical afternoons at Thomond and in far flung parts of southern France became a distant memory, would we look back on 2005 and see how it all slipped away in bemusement at how the goose that laid the golden egg was allowed to die?


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