Alan Quinlan – a magnificently evocative piece – I am a Lansdowne man for life. Its like that – rugby. Also Rovers – There is really only one – The Hoops.

The Irish Times – Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Green shoots in the grass roots
ALAN QUINLAN

FROM THE BLINDSIDE : Having endured a tough decade, the club game is
on the up again, with economic hard times having helped reminded us
how important it is

A COUPLE of weeks ago, when nearly 3,000 people turned up at Thomond
Park on a Friday night, it wasn’t for a Rabo Pro 12 game. There were a
few of the Munster squad playing alright but that wasn’t what brought
people in through the gates. No, for the first time in a long time,
the pulling power came from the club game – it was Shannon v Young
Munster in the Ulster Bank League and the people who paid through the
turnstiles ended up seeing a classic. Young Munster came back from
20-3 down after half an hour to win 23-20 and everyone went home
knowing they’d witnessed a cracking game.

To see that many people heading out on a Friday night to go to a
league game would do your heart good. Or at least it would do my heart
good. I was a club player before I was anything else. I didn’t come
through the schools system, I came through first with Clanwilliam and
later with Shannon and in fact the first All-Ireland League game I
ever played was against Munsters up in Greenfields.

It’s what I grew up with. My dad used to bring me to games in Limerick
when I was a boy. Then later on when I was playing with Clanwilliam, I
used to work every second Saturday in a garage for a half-day.
Whenever I could get away, I’d take my mam’s car and head off to a
game with a few friends. To end up playing in the league itself was a
huge thrill for me. It might sound a bit stupid now but to me at the
time, it was like a kid who loved soccer getting a game in the Premier
League.

Back at the end of the 1990s, the clubs were where your loyalties lay.
You played in front of huge crowds in tough, physical games. They were
your bread and butter, they hardened you up and got you noticed. Even
though you might be playing for Munster in the Heineken Cup, there was
still a good chance that an Ireland selector would see you playing an
AIL game.

In a way, it wasn’t the Heineken Cup that really killed the club game.
It was the Celtic League. When it arrived, it changed what our bread
and butter would be. It meant that provincial players had to come
together and play and train as one unit. The attitude in the clubs at
the time was that they could nearly live with losing players for a few
weekends a year to go and play in the interpros and the Heineken Cup
but they knew when the Celtic League came that we would be gone.

The professional game needed professional players living and breathing
the game full-time and doing it together. The level of play wasn’t
doing anyone any harm but it was fairly obvious that for us to improve
and compete, we had to leave the clubs behind and work under one
umbrella. We all know now that it worked out well for just about
everyone in Irish rugby. But the clubs got left behind.

It was hard for players to do that, to leave behind the ties and
loyalties they’d built up. For a while, we were half-in and half-out.
It caused turmoil because the provincial players would all be released
back to the clubs for specific weekends and in a place like Shannon,
that could be anything up to seven or eight guys coming back. So
fellas who had been playing in every game got put to one side when we
came back and there was definitely some resentment.

Eventually, it became unsustainable and a lot of clubs decided they
couldn’t guarantee provincial players games when they came back.

But just because we were playing together for Munster, it didn’t mean
we weren’t still club men at heart. The truth of it is that we would
have found it hard to come together in some cases. Once the red jersey
was on everybody would play for each other but it wouldn’t always be
like that in training or when we were travelling to matches. It might
be Shannon lads in one corner and Garryowen guys in the other and the
Cookies in the other. Cork Con lads, sure you wouldn’t know where
they’d be.

I remember Dave Mahedy was the poor unfortunate whose job it was to
get us to train together back then and God love him, he had a job on
his hands to get us on the same page. It wouldn’t have been uncommon
to see the Shannon guys doing their weights together while the
Garryowen lads went outside to do their speed session. That rivalry
was still there even as late as 1998-99 and it took a while for fellas
to fully accept each other as the people they would be working with
every day. It sounds like madness now but that’s how strong your link
to your club was.

Once the Celtic League came along, Declan Kidney and Niall O’Donovan
sat us down and said it had to stop. This was what we’d all signed up
to, this was what being professional rugby players was all about, this
was what we all wanted to do with our lives. The clubs had helped us
all hugely but we were Munster players now and we had to let go. It
was hard on the clubs but it had to be done.

The crowds at club matches were always going to go down. Not only were
the best-known players not there any more but there were bigger games
to go to in the Celtic League and the Heineken Cup. In the end, people
can only do so much with their time and their money.

On the pitch, the distance between the club game and the professional
game grew. Initially, it was a physical thing but as time went by, the
difference was more in the skills. Club players today are rarely
significantly less impressive physical specimens than provincial
players. Trust me, I know all about it – the last time I played a club
game was in 2008 when I was coming back from a thumb injury and got
some gametime for Shannon against Galwegians in Coona. They beat the
s**t out of me. Ivan Muldoon, brother of the Connacht player John, was
playing in the backrow for them and he was all over me. Never mind the
decade of strength and conditioning I’d put in as a professional, a
strong guy is a strong guy and the club game is full of them.

The last game I had before that was in 2006, again when I was coming
back from injury and trying to get some fitness for the Heineken Cup
final. What happened that day wasn’t fair – I took the place of a
Shannon player, Anton Meaney, for the league final. I came on for the
last 30 minutes but felt like a fraud the whole day, especially when
all the lads were dancing around the place at the end.

Anton had been there all season and had played and trained away and
here I was swanning in and taking his place. It wasn’t right but it’s
what had to be done at the time. I gave Anton the medal afterwards.
I’d done nothing to deserve it.

The clubs are always going to be used as a place where players coming
back from injuries can get a game or two to regain match fitness. But
I still believe there is a route from the club game to the provincial
side of things. James Coughlan is proof of that. The system won’t grab
everybody when they’re a teenager and get them into the academies and
the club game is still a place where a guy who for whatever reason has
slipped the net at 18 or 19 can get himself noticed at 22 or 23.
That’s not too late to fight your way into the professional game.

Overall though, the club game is predominantly a place for guys who
love playing rugby to keep going and keep playing to a reasonably high
level.

There’s no point pretending that there are loads of James Coughlans
out there but that’s not the point of the league. As the game gets
bigger and playing numbers grow, the Ulster Bank League is the outlet
for the huge majority of good players in the country who will never
make it to the professional game.

The standard is decent and there’s no doubt that a bit of excitement
is definitely coming back to the league. People have less money to be
going away on all the trips with their provinces and some of them are
choosing to keep it local and reconnect with their clubs.

Former professionals like Mike Prendergast at Young Munster and
Stephen Keogh at Shannon are coming back to the game and passing on
what they’ve learned over the course of their careers. That creates a
buzz and gets people interested again.

In an odd kind of way, I think more players are staying involved
because of the recession. During the good times, you would have often
seen very good club players just walk away from the game if they got
to 21 but hadn’t been picked up at provincial level. They’d go off and
throw themselves into whatever career they had and they’d drift away
from the club altogether.

But these days, because there isn’t as much work or money around, the
club is there as a social outlet for them. Something like that becomes
far more important when times are hard.

The clubs have come through a very hard time over the past dozen years
or so. They had every reason to feel left behind as the professional
game became so popular and everybody latched on to the success of the
provinces.

But I think once everybody stopped worrying about its popularity
dwindling and just accepted it for what it is rather than beating it
up for not being what it used to be, that’s when it started to turn
around again.

We’ll never go back to the days of the mid- to late-’90s again. But as
the crowd in Thomond Park a fortnight ago showed, that doesn’t mean we
can’t enjoy these times just as well.