GAA Football

Off the Fence: 'Ulster are nothing more than an IRFU academy'

Kingspan Stadium

THE storm at Kingspan Stadium is showing no signs of disappearing, with the on-field and off-field developments at Ulster Rugby having dominated headlines on the front and back pages for weeks.

Amid all the more serious issues, the team has struggled on the pitch and is hanging on by a thread in their bid for a Pro14 playoff place and a spot in next season’s Champions Cup.

The weekend past saw links made with a switch for both of Leinster’s reserve fly-halves, Joey Carberry and Ross Byrne, in keeping with the IRFU’s policy of trying to get the best Irish players as much rugby at home as possible. 

Neither player seems that keen but it might happen anyway. But for long-time supporter ‘Stephen’, it only serves to highlight where Ulster is at in the pecking order. And other things. Strap yourself in…

“I write this with considerable anger and concern, feelings which have been growing for sometime. I have been a rugby supporter since I can remember. I played the game with various clubs all over the world and have been a member of a local club since I was a sixteen year old. Rugby is a sport that has usually conducted itself in a good manner.

“The problem that I and many of my peers now have, is that we believe that Ulster, ‘our club’, are now just a senior academy for the IRFU.

At best, Ulster Rugby is how a mere franchise, its primary function is to provide assets to the IRFU.

“For quite sometime we have it has become clear that the hierarchy within Ulster Rugby are purely puppets on the strings of the IRFU.

Since the new era of professional rugby arrived, which has been detrimental to club rugby, gone are the days of having international players representing their chosen local clubs.

“I can recall a time at my own local club, Malone RFC, when it once fielded a time that had 14 Ulster, Ireland, and Scotland players. Games where hundreds would come to watch top-class players play top-class rugby. A beautiful combination between what is commonly referred to as ‘grassroots sport’ and international pedigree.

“This era is over. We will never see this again because of the direction professional rugby has taken the sport in, and taken us, the fans in. We now have Club Ulster, which over the years we have bowed to and supported because it was, or so we were told, ‘our’ Ulster team. For a long time, they had us fooled.

“Yes our players have proudly represented Ireland and we have supported them when they play. But with Ireland/Ulster deciding to sack two innocent men based on the pressure of sponsors and social media hysteria we now find our team looking for players and a new coaching team.

“I gritted my teeth when I read an article that said ‘Ulster are looking globally for a head coach... we are taking direction from Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and David Nucifora (IRFU Performance Director).

“Why I ask is ‘my’ team, ‘our’ (supposed) team, Ulster taking direction from the IRFU? I cursed to myself and waited to see what would come of this.

“Then I read in the Sunday Times an article that makes me now realise what both myself and many of my rugby-supporting peers have believed for some time - Ulster and its supporters are not important to the IRFU.

“The only thing that matters is that the product, ‘Club Ireland’ is successful both financially and performance wise. The interests of the provinces does not matter. The interest of fans, the lifeblood of any sport, does not matter.

“As I said at the beginning, Ulster are now just a senior Ireland academy and nothing else. In this context, it’s no surprise that the IRFU didn't want a stalwart of Ulster rugby to continue playing in Ulster (Ruan Pienaar) because it didn't fit in the IRFU's player placement scheme, and of course what isn’t in the best interests of the IRFU shall not be permitted in rugby in Ulster.

“I have never wanted Ulster to be full of foreign players, I have wanted to see players who come from local clubs, from their mini-rugby teams, truly home-grown players, who know what rugby means here, to the fans of Malone, Ballynahinch, Ballymena, and beyond. If one of these 2 players mentioned in the Times article (Joey Carberry and Ross Byrne) are sanctioned to Ulster that will make next season nine players from Leinster rugby who are playing at Ulster - is that because it’s in the best interests of Ulster Rugby, rugby in Ulster, or the IRFU? Because there are three competing interests, but there will only ever be one winner.

“I was a season ticket holder but not anymore. I and my peers are going back to actively supporting local club rugby.”

Response: It is hard to argue with your assessment of where Ulster stands in the IRFU’s pecking order. Whether it’s how they see it themselves or not, it looks increasingly like the graveyard of Irish rugby, somewhere players are sent when there’s a recognition that they aren’t quite good enough for either of the big two. The sport has become obsessed with its money-making engines and, partly as a result, the club game has died a slow and painful death in Ireland. That’s no different in Ulster than it is in the other three provinces.

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IN the world of GAA, ‘Paraic’ [not Mr Duffy] has weighed in with an idea for the reformation of the All-Ireland SFC, which is not due for change again until 2120 given the recent level of footering the GAA has been at with it. Overdue footering, it must be said.

“This is my suggestion how a new-type Gaelic football championship would work for fairness and balance.

”Eight groups of four for the 32 county teams. It would be seeded by National Football League standings, so no lopsided groups.

“Top two from each group go into the last 16 of the Sam Maguire Cup. The bottom two in each group go into the last 16 of a new All-Ireland cup called, for example, the Paidi Ó Sé Cup.

“So every team starts off in the Sam Maguire Cup. This is what every team wants anyway. Teams only drop into the Paidi Ó Sé cup if they do not finish in the top two of their group.

“By this new-type football championship, every team is guaranteed at least four games. Standards will also rise.

”Both All-Ireland finals will be on the same day, the last Sunday in August, to give real incentive.

“The National Leagues would be retained, they are great for playing in and trying out new players. The All-Ireland club football finals should be finished off by the end of the year.”

Response: One question, Paraic: Where do the clubs fit into all of this? ‘Start off in September and make sure you’re finished up by the end of the year’ wouldn’t be that attractive.

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And lastly, ‘Brian’ got in touch to praise Kenny Archer’s in-depth interview with David Hassan, a good north Derry native who sits on the GAA's ‘Towards 150' think-tank tasked with considering the Association's future.

“I just wanted to say how refreshing and enjoyable I found David Hasson's interview on Saturday's paper - his story was really interesting. I was a sports science student at UU and David was such an inspiration to all of us.

“Ulster GAA is very fortunate to have him and well done to the Irish News for profiling people like David - we need more of these type of people at the top of the GAA.”

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