WHEN Vernon Pugh and his two brothers were teenagers, their father took them down a pit.
A miner from Glynmoch, a small village in the Amman Valley in Wales, he told the boys when they returned to the surface: “I never want to see you near a place like this again.”
Vernon never went back near the mines, forging a career as a QC and ultimately one of rugby union’s top administrators.
When rugby went professional in the summer of 1995, Pugh was the man that delivered the news to the world.
He had been warning those around the top end of the sport for some time that the dam of amateurism wouldn’t hold much longer.
It’s ironic, then, that the sport finds itself in the pits again.
London Irish filed for administration last week, becoming the third English Premiership club to do so this season after Wasps and Worcester.
Rugby’s financial model is badly broken. Outside investment for some has forced those without it to overspend in the hope of keeping up long enough for some rich petrodude to pick them up as well. When that doesn’t happen, they go bust.
There is not enough money floating around in rugby to sustain professionalism. They have known that for a long time. So they try and cover their modesty as best they can and pray they get through winter without ending up on the street.
There are obvious differences between rugby union and the GAA, but there are equally obvious similarities.
Ireland is a small country, with one-eighth of the population of England. Within that there are the three major competing sporting interests. GAA, soccer and rugby do not own exact thirds of it all but they’re not far off.
If the other two didn’t exist, the one remaining sport would have a great run at it. Ireland would win Rugby World Cups or they’d be regulars at FIFA’s showpiece, but they aren’t.
The GAA has to share too. It means the pot is very finite. There is a limited number of people and a limited amount of money to go around.
Almost every county board in Ireland last year made a profit or broke-even.
Limerick spent €2.3m preparing their inter-county teams. That broke a record that had only been set days earlier by Galway when they announced spending of €2.16m for 2022.
Galway secretary Seamus O’Grady labelled it “a concern” that costs continue to rise, wondering aloud in his annual report where the tipping point might be in terms of the balance between how much of the pie is given just to the inter-county teams at the expense of everything else.
While all counties have commercial partnerships, Limerick have had significant funding coming from wealthy benefactor JP McManus.
Such funding has taken place for more than 30 years under the guise of sponsorship, which has the same inequalities. Limerick have just been lucky JP McManus is from there. Every county in Ireland would dream of being in their position.
Dublin footballers were often questioned for their financial advantages. Is the impact McManus’ money has on Limerick’s success and the sporting fairness of it something that needs examination?
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If so, where do you draw the line then? It’s like complaining about Man City winning everything because their multi-multi-billionaire owners have more money than anyone else’s multi-billionaire owners. How much is too much?
You either set caps or you accept that your sport is open to financial manipulation.
The more that is spent on these setups, the more professional they become.
All the money and expertise is being poured straight into inter-county setups, with very little investment behind it in terms of professional people to actually manage them.
It has become like a set of scales with all the weight on one side.
There are counties spending a fortune of money on county teams and still asking tiny clubs to pay annual levies while giving absolutely nothing back.
It used to be common practice for clubs to get a share of the gate from their own championship games. That rarely, if ever, happens any more.
Down have been praised in recent days for allowing those not named in the first 18 of the county team for a game to play for their clubs. That is virtually unheard of in modern times.
The split season was the first act of rebalancing in a long time, but rather than use it to fight the corner of their clubs, counties are allowing it to be abused.
Many continue to start their club leagues as early as possible so that county players are completely removed from them, coming back only in time for championship.
In the background, counties are increasingly moving down the road of a Chief Executive Officer (or Head of Operations, as the GAA seems to want to call them).
Commercial managers, full-time secretaries, coaching staff and other adminstrators are paid roles.
Yet there’s no proper HR in place, no accountability, no contracts. As we’ve seen in Donegal recently, that can create a house of cards.
Right around the country there are people in management teams and backroom setups for whom it is their primary source of income. It is their day job.
We are well down the road that’s signposted Professionalism.
What feels most worrying is that we’re heading there but not preparing for what it will be like.
We’ve seen the dangers of being so ill-prepared with Brexit, the political equivalent of arriving in the Bahamas and opening your suitcase to find only wellies and woolly jumpers.
Those furthering a United Ireland are at least trying to take it onboard by having discussions and laying the groundwork for what actually happens if it ever comes to pass.
The GAA has to start laying proper plans for its own future.
If they want to pull the brakes, then pull the brakes.
A strict financial cap on spending by inter-county teams, set closer to the average of €1m per county and rigorously audited by Croke Park, is the obvious first step.
If it’s intent on letting the dam burst and making it professional, the very least the GAA must do is lay plans for what it will do when that happens.
The one thing they can’t do with professionalism is ignore it.
They cannot keep listening to counties warning of the perils of their spending, even adding their own concerns, and doing absolutely nothing about it.
Professionalism feels inevitable precisely because counties will have to put more money in at the bottom (administration) to manage and regulate the top.
The dam will not hold much longer.
If we’re not ready when it bursts, the pits await.