Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Is the “West (really) Awake?”

Can Connacht Rugby Thrive Within The Provincial System In Ireland? asks Big Joe Shep...


Having seen the rise, improvement, development, potential of Connacht Rugby since Pat Lam took over as Head Coach at Connacht in 2013 and having visited the Galway Sportsground, I wonder can Connacht Rugby actually achieve their potential as is?

Is there in reality, a Provincial “Pecking Order” under the IRFU whether enforced or merely a historical throwback or mindset? 

Now this is neither a slur on the IRFU nor any of our Provinces. The more we develop EACH of the Provincial teams, the better I believe will be the brand, standing and achievements of Irish Rugby. Indeed the IRFU have a couple of fantastic documents covering Irish Rugby Development,  From Grassroots to International Success; One Island, One Passion, One Goal and Long Term Player Development: From 6 To 6 Nations. Do these however reflect an equal opportunity and levels of funding and support both physical and in any other manner of Irish Rugby across the 4 Provinces?

Is there then a different set of rules or standards therefore which keeps the pecking order within Irish Rugby as is? To me, I’d opine that it runs;

Leinster then Munster followed by Ulster and finally Connacht. (Note: Clearly that one will spark SOME debate even if nothing else does!! BJS)

Some reading this might feel that’s harsh but viewing these matters as an outsider moving back to Ireland within these last 12 months, I suspect that being Dublin based and within the traditional “Pale” with the added historical aspects of rugby being favoured by the protestant Irish elite and housed a stone’s throw away from the IRFU HQ, means that Leinster will always get the lion’s share of support, access to Key Persons of Influence etc etc. It’s like being in the Court of a Kingdom. If you are not within, you are without!

Likewise, Ulster has a strong traditional background in rugby especially within the North East 6 Counties whereas Munster and Connacht I’d opine are more traditionally favoured towards the Gaelic sports and traditions. The fan base and player demographics for the 3 biggest provinces together with the grounds at RDS/Aviva for Leinster, Ravenhill/Kingspan for Ulster and Fortress Thomond for Munster (All near to or in excess of 20,000 capacity) show why they are (currently) light years apart from Connacht’s Sportsground housing only 7, 500 and to be fair in the sparsest of conditions.

In addition, Connacht has the smallest proportion of player pool to choose from with only some 7% of players in Ireland within their catchment. This coupled with the GAA sports means it will always be difficult. Does this therefore reflect the mindset of the IRFU and others towards them and will they always be seen as the poor cousin? Through the work of the Connacht Branch and the support of the IRFU, the province has experienced growth, increasing its underage and schools participation through initiatives such as the 'Grassroots to Greenshirts' campaign. 

The Connacht Eagles, a developmental side, have featured in the British and Irish Cup since the 2012–13 season. Ticket sales have been on the rise and they look on the cusp of potential explosive capability but is that backed by major plans to develop the club, their facilities to support that?

Now it’s accepted that every team has their “Time”, their championship “Windows of Opportunity” and Ulster, Munster and Leinster have all seen glory but it’s only since 2011 onwards really that the rise and turn in fortunes for Connacht have taken hold. 

They did have a couple of good seasons between 2003 – 05 reaching the European Challenge Cup semi-finals back to back then again in 2009 – 10 under Michael Bradley. Eric Elwood had a lot to do I believe with developing those foundations for Connacht and the 2103/14 and this season to date has seen Pat Lam build on that and they’ve enjoyed some success in real terms winning 3 games in their pools in the Heineken Cup the last 2 seasons. They are having a decent run in this year’s Pro 12 but can they maintain that without being an equal partner in Irish Rugby? 

Originally a development team, the IRFU looked at potentially closing Connacht down as a cost saving measure around 2003. Indeed as I understand it, they still receive less in funding than the other Provinces despite the IRFUs excellent input of an extra 1 Million towards strength and conditioning coaching and facilities.

But what plans for a new stadia? It doesn’t have to be as good as Fortress Thomond or the Aviva nor even RDS but if you want to develop and grow and achieve, then surely Irish rugby must be on an equal footing?.

Connacht Rugby has in the past lost players it recruited and helped to develop to provincial rivals and foreign teams. For example, Connacht lost five key players between 2011 and 2012 to provincial rivals. Ian Keatley to Munster, Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan, Fionn Carr and recently Mike McCarthy all to Leinster. After McCarthy went in 2012, the Connacht chief executive Tom Sears accused Leinster of trying to "poach" Connacht players, arguing it was not in the best interests of Irish rugby. I would say even as a Leinster fan, he’s right!

Anyhow there you have it, a team on the rise but still looked at by some or all as the bottom of the pecking order, the ones to remain underfunded by comparison, worst stadium and facilities of the four Irish Provinces and whose who best players are ripe for picking when and as it suits the other Provinces. Am I correct or is it just the way things have always been?

The ultimate exam question remains, can the West truly “Awake” within the current setup and achieve Pro 12 and European Rugby glory as the bigger three have previously done?

@bigjoeshep is the Owner and Head of Information & Knowledge Management atDigital Knowledge Zone.   An avid Leinster & Ireland Rugby fan, he came to rugby at the late age of 24, was a tight head prop, had at least 2 good runs in every game and retired at only 36 after 3 operations on his legs and now forms the 4th "virtual" person in a front row each time his beloved teams are playing (much to the annoyance of his suffering girlfriend who has to put up with being "embraced" by the Big Fella at each scrum!!!)

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