Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is the Irish Rugby Establishment Biting the Hands that Feed It?

Big PaulieThe news that the cheapest ticket to see Ireland play the World Champion Springboks in the new stadium at Lansdowne Road retails at a tasty one hundred bucks has been greeted with horror, amazement and dismay. Rugby tickets were never either cheap or easy to get but my goodness, once a commodity goes into three figures people are inclined to stop and think before opening up the sporran.

Irish rugby has never been as popular as it now. The provincial system, which has been present since forever, suddenly became the ideal unit size for the new international club competitions that the professional game brought. The damage wrought to proud old clubs like Lansdowne, Shannon or Dungannon was all forgotten about when the provinces returned home laden with titles and booty.

Couple the rise of the provinces with the presence of a golden generation that saw Ireland win their second ever Grand Slam and sensible people were suddenly wondering if rugby really would challenge the GAA as the most popular sport in Ireland.

How odd, then, that the IRFU should put that in danger, as they are currently doing. Or, is it the case as some cynics suggest that popularity was never something that the Irish rugby establishment ever really desired? As long as player numbers remained stable, were they quite happy to retain their historic aura or elitism? To keep the game among one’s own kind of people?

The ticket prices aren’t the strangest part of it. One of the hardest things to understand about the IRFU in the past six months has been how happy they were to see their potential attendance at games drop from eighty to fifty thousand. How can any sports organisation be happy to see the potential audience at live showpiece games not only reduce, but reduce by more than a quarter? It doesn’t make sense.

The other thing that doesn’t make sense is the Irish rugby establishment’s unquestioning acceptance of the notion that the game in Ireland would be wiped out without Sky television coverage and their hysterical reaction to Minister Ryan’s proposals to do with free to air TV. Keith Duggan of the Irish Times was the only mainstream journalist to question this primacy of Sky television, and to go on to wonder if there wasn’t something just a little bit not right about a national sports organisation that cares so little for a specifically national broadcasting angle on its live games.

In the past ten years, many Irish people looked to rugby, specifically to the Munster and Ireland teams, to represent all that’s best about the nation. The IRFU accepted this love. And have repaid it with hundred Euro tickets, sublime indifference to thirty thousand fans locked out for home internationals and a willingness to have the TV games dissected from London, rather than Ireland (be that Limerick, Galway, Belfast or Dublin).

That’s an extraordinary way for the Irish rugby establishment to react to the hands that have been feeding them for a decade. Not least as the success of Irish rugby has been due to a golden generation winning things – a golden generation that is getting very old, very quickly.

Vital players are hanging on for one last hurrah at the 2011 World Cup after the disaster of 2007, but they are past their sell-by date already, one year before a ball is kicked. They will not be easily replaced. This is apart from Brian O’Driscoll of course, whose like will never be seen again. Seeing someone like O’Driscoll is like seeing Halley’s Comet. It’s a once in a lifetime thing.

But outside of a genius in our time, the Irish playing pool is exposing itself as dangerously shallow in vital positions like tight head prop and fly-half. There is so little domestic rugby played in Ireland that players in those very specialist positions don’t have the time to learn their trade and build experience before being thrown in at a level higher than their ability out of desperation. Fly-halves and props who are anonymous in their own countries can look so competent for provinces here because they come from a much richer rugby culture. Even the Australians.

Fly-half is vital because the fly-half controls the game, and prop, especially tight-head prop, is vital because the scrum remains integral to the very soul of the game. And, with the way the game has evolved, where France routinely change their entire front row after an hour to make the most of the final quarter, you now need four props and two hookers, instead of the three happy fatties of yore.

What happens if these positions aren’t filled? The reality is that the Irish playing pool is so shallow that if people don’t start challenging for positions in the front row and at fly-half soon, the next ten years won’t be a question of matching the achievements of the golden generation, not even those tin-pot Triple Crowns and second place finishes of the past decade. Without quality at pivotal positions, you’re trying not to be humiliated by Scotland and Italy.

Nervous times for an IRFU that seems to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.