1. All Ireland League
2. Review Fixture template/schedule In Ulster
3. Clash of International and Heineken European fixtures with Domestic Calendar.
3. Staging Provincial Cup Finals
4. Player welfare
5. Winter Break
5. Replacements in Ulster rugby Championship
6. Player registration/transfers.
7. Player Development in Belfast.
9. Introduction combined Schools and Youth Rugby pathway into Adult Rugby
10. Introduction of Under 20 Rugby in Ulster.
11. Upskilling coaching staff from Mini to Adult Rugby
12. Volunteer recruitment and training to fill administrative posts both within Ulster Rugby and Club committees.
13. PR promotion of Domestic Club Rugby in Ulster through Social Media.
ALL IRELAND LEAGUE
This is an issue that needs to be resolved on the shape and format of the All Ireland League. We have five divisions involving 10 teams in each league. The teams in Div 1A and 1B are referred to as the Section 1 teams. The teams in Div 2A, 2B and 2C are referred to as the Section 2 teams. The IRFU are keen to create a structure in Section 1 that will provide opportunities for professional players to play alongside club players in an enhanced structure. The case I believe needs to be made for the teams in Section 2 to be returned to a Senior League within each of the Provinces with the league winners given the opportunity to play off in a Round Robin tournament for a place in Section 1 of the All Ireland League if that team fits the criteria set out for clubs to participate in the All Ireland League. Since the introduction of the All Ireland League societal changes are now dictating that the current structures in their present format cannot be sustained. It is clear that in Ulster the Ulster AIL teams are struggling to cope with the number of fixtures they have to play in the All Ireland League, Bateman Cup, Ulster Premiership League and the First Trust Senior Cup. My recommendation is that the teams in the All Ireland league should focus on their league programme and an enhanced All Ireland Bateman Cup played on a knockout basis. Taking Ulster as an example the Ulster Senior league teams should compete for the Stevenson Shield and the First Trust Senior Cup in a newly restructured Ulster Premiership league that involves promotion and relegation with the Kukri Ulster Rugby Championship. My view is how many if any of the current Ulster teams in Section 2 have the playing resources to compete in Section 1. Can Queens University take that step this season for a place in Div 1B. One of the big issues for a number of clubs in Ulster is losing their All Ireland or Ulster Senior status as it is still widely called. My proposals are a solution to the present stalemate which I believe has a lot of support in Ulster. The problem in Ulster is that we don't have enough quality amateur players to sustain 12 teams in the All Ireland League. I would go as far to say that clubs and their players are showing signs of suffering from fatigue at this stage of the season. The points return from the first four AIL games would support my findings. City of Armagh 1st xv had to play 10 weeks running in four competitions before they had a weekend off. Is that the way the IRFU and the Ulster Branch look after our club players. This can't be right.
REVIEW FIXTURE TEMPLATE/PLAYING SCHEDULE IN ULSTER.
This has been an ongoing problem in Ulster for several seasons. Clubs and teams who have been successful in assembling playing squads are the very clubs who end up being punished each season by having to play three games in eight days. Is it a fair way to reward and acknowledge the achievements of these clubs. The stock answer given to me is that clubs choose the number of competitions they can enter each season. Does any club know how far their teams will progress in a competition before entering it. In the Championship League the Div 1 teams compete for the All Ireland Junior Cup, Millar McCall Wylie Junior Cup, River Rock Towns Cup and the McCrea Cup in addition to their league matches. On current arrangements the winners of the league enter a Provincial Round Robin tournament where they play a further three matches to secure a place in the All Ireland League. The teams successfully competing in all these competitions will potentially end up playing 30 + matches in a season. Is this fair. There is the ongoing problem in Ulster when several Ulster teams can be left without fixtures for the months of October, November and December depending on the progress they make in the All Ireland Junior Cup and the Millar McCall Wylie Junior Cup. Then you find this block of fixtures from the end of December through to the end of March where teams have no breaks and end up playing postponed and rearranged games mid week because there are no spare weekends built in. Again I have to ask about player welfare. Maybe it is telling us the reason why so many young players drop out of playing Adult rugby. There is a fixation in clubs that you have to keep the 1st xv playing to bring supporters into the clubhouse. Can supporters not follow the other teams that represent their club.
CLASHING FIXTURES IN SIX NATIONS AND EUROPEAN WEEKENDS WITH DOMESTIC FIXTURES
Because of our overly populated fixture schedule and the reluctance of clubs to play matches outside the traditional Saturday afternoon we are witnessing clubs struggling to select teams to play on these weekends involving Six Nations ands European weekends. I know talking to coaches and players they enjoy having the opportunity to have a weekend off to enjoy watching these games. In Ulster we have semi finals taking place in two of our Premier club Cup competitions the River Rock Cup and the McCrea Cup taking place at the same time as the final three matches in the Six Nations take place on Saturday the 16th March. I have also noticed that postponed matches in the Kukri Ulster Rugby Championship are being rearranged on this date due to no other weekends being available. There are challenges for both the Competitions Management Committee and officials from clubs to resolve. Again I am being told that without these matches the clubs would not be able to maximise their facilities. Again I ask where is the consideration for our players and coaches. I noticed Omagh RFC were able to host a pre Six Nations lunch without the 1st xv playing that was a great success. Do we witness club fixtures in Leinster, Munster and Connacht clash with such occasions. The answer is no. They play rugby on a Friday or Sunday to avoid such a clash.
STAGING PROVINCIAL CUP FINALS
You will notice the Finals of the First Trust Senior Cup and the Millar McCall Wylie Junior Cup take place mid week in December and January. They are not staged on a Saturday. I have suggested that both finals should be staged on the same Saturday similar in arrangement to the River Rock Towns Cup and McCrea Cup Finals that are hosted on Easter Monday at the Kingspan stadium. We had Dromore playing three days games in eight days - the reward for their success in reaching the final. Thankfully we had Carrickfergus agreeing to postpone their league game. But it meant Dromore having to play three games in eight days to fulfil the rearranged league game with Carrickfergus. It is just not the supporters of these teams who enjoy watching these Cup Finals but many passionate club supporters enjoy lending their support to these occasions. Once again the successful clubs and their teams are being punished for their success. You don't get this happening in the other three provinces.
We are all aware of the demands made on players at all levels of the game. The increasing work done by players on strengthening and conditioning their bodies has not helped in safe guarding their body from the rigours of the physical contact in the sport. If anything the increasing number of injuries I report on weekly is a testimony and opportunity for those officials who oversee the game to ensure the structures they put in place at all levels provide built in rest periods for the players to recover from the physical impact their body has to endure each week to play rugby. If we do not address our over populated playing programmes we have to say we are being negligent in addressing our responsibilities to provide a safe environment for our players to play rugby.
This is a subject that has been raised with me over several seasons. Is it time we looked further into considering such an issue. Would such a break benefit both players and clubs. I know in the past clubs that have benefitted from a 3/4 week break have been able to use such a break as a mini season to help players recharge their tired bodies and refocus on the second half of their season. As I said earlier are we seeing signs of fatigue settling in Ulster playing squads competing in the All Ireland League. I suspect you could apply the same to the Kukri Ulster Rugby Championship.
REPLACEMENTS IN CHAMPIONSHIP RUGBY
When we compare the number of replacements that are allowed in Championship rugby compared to the All Ireland League I have to question why is this happening. The controversy involving Dromore and CIYMS should not have happened and should not happen again. I don't see any difference in the physical nature of the collisions in rugby whatever the level. Clubs may complain it is taking players away from teams. Our priority is the welfare of our players. Leaving injured players on the pitch is not the way forward or leaving a team at a disadvantage due to injuries is not a solution due to a lack of replacements. The number of teams a club fields should be reflected by the playing pool and resources they have to support these teams. Stretching playing resources to field teams is again not a solution.
I have been amazed how some clubs have prevented young players from playing rugby for a club due to administrative procedures within their club. What is the point of having a young player being prohibited from playing rugby for several months. I don't see the logic. We have rules and regulations governing the movement of players in clubs. Sometimes we need to look at the bigger picture when we prevent a player playing rugby in these circumstances. I have been made aware of several incidences this season that have amazed me.
PLAYER DEVELOPMENT IN BELFAST
When you see the progress the rural clubs are making in partnership with Ulster Rugby through the employment of Community Development Officers you have to ask the question why are the clubs in Belfast not doing the same. I understand Malone, Instonians and Ophir are the only Belfast clubs engaged in such programmes. I know the work Noel Brown is doing at Cooke RFC. When you see a club like Malone unable to field a 3rd xv least Saturday at Ballymoney you have to ask the question why and where are all the young players going to. The playing numbers are declining in Belfast and you worry for the future health of such clubs. As I was informed it will take a holistic approach from the Belfast clubs in partnership with Ulster Rugby to reverse this trend.
INTRODUCTION COMBINED SCHOOLS AND YOUTH RUGBY PATHWAY INTO ADULT RUGBY
Again this is a subject where in many areas of the province they are breaking down barriers through the relationships and partnerships they are creating to bring together underage players to sustain the future of club rugby. Some may describe the current arrangements as representing social exclusion for those young people under 18 who don't have the opportunity to attend a Grammar School and pursue their rugby experience. We are all aware of the level of coaching that is delivered in Grammar Schools and at Youth level. My view is that anyone under 18 years should have the same opportunities to develop and receive the same coaching support regardless of their social and academic placement. Rugby has always been promoted as an inclusive sport that represents all creeds and religions. We are making progress but there is much work to be done.
INTRODUCTION UNDER 20 LEAGUES
With the age profile of players decreasing each year in the All Ireland League are we not being told that there is something wrong why older players discontinue playing All Ireland League rugby and are being replaced by younger players. The question I have to ask is why are our AIL teams becoming reliant on these players. Are there not dangers we are asking 18 year old players to step in and play at this level. In Ulster Championship rugby you will see more players over 25 years playing rugby. I have referred in the past to creating a pathway to enable players to transition from Schools/Youth Rugby into the Adult game. Because we don't encourage under 20 rugby in Ulster are we not endangering young players by exposing them to AIL and Championship rugby when their body has not developed. I was talking to Colin Hamilton who coaches the 2nd xv at Queens University. Colin told me that when he started coaching his squad three years ago they were just schoolboys. Three years later they are men and are able to be competitive in adult rugby. Queens University seconds are top of Provincial One and into the semi finals of the McCrea Cup. Are there not lessons for us all to learn from the Queens experience. I know the difficulties the Ulster University of Coleraine had at the end of last season. They were developing a playing squad that was going to be competitive this season only to lose the majority of their squad to AIL and Championship clubs. Would these players not have been better staying at UUC and completing their playing development in a student environment. There are lessons to be learned from both the experiences I have documented at Queens University and UUC for young rugby players. I know Derek Suffern Head coach at Queens University is very anxious to see Ulster Rugby putting in place an under 20 league competition in the province.
UPSKILLING COACHING STAFF FROM MINI TO ADULT RUGBY
It is just not about providing a potential coach with a rugby ball to develop and equip young players with the skills to become a rugby player. It is also important that we make sure that all coaches from Mini, Youth and Adult are upskilled annually with the knowledge and coaching skills to give our young players the best opportunities to progress at the sport.
VOLUNTEER RECRUITMENT AND TRAINING TO FILL ADMINISTRATIVE POSTS BOTH WITHIN ULSTER RUGBY AND CLUB COMMITTEES
This is certainly an area that is causing concern in many clubs at present. For any of us who have been involved in Club Rugby the rewards are numerous for what we have put back into a game that has given us so much. Sadly like many professions we have a limited lifespan and the time comes when younger volunteers are required to come in and replace long serving staff. New ideas are required to persuade and encourage new volunteers to fulfil key roles that will ensure our community rugby clubs have a future. The skills learned and developed performing administrative roles - as well as coaching positions - provide both the individual and those who benefit from that support in your club with so many moments they will treasure from in later years. One area that has always concerned me in rugby clubs is the disconnect between Minis, Youth and Adult sections in Rugby clubs. We need to break down these barriers and bring all sections of our clubs together. I think missed opportunities to bring new faces into club committees need to be revisited.
PR PROMOTION OF DOMESTIC RUGBY IN ULSTER
This is one area that has pleased me in the last two seasons is how clubs are embracing social media to promote their clubs and the activities within their clubs. There are a number of clubs who still have work to do. We have a younger generation who have the skills and knowledge to progress our social media platform. It is all about building relationships with this generation and welcoming people from our communities to make use of our club facilities. To see several thousand followers on club websites is a welcome sight compared to two/three seasons. As I keep saying we are making progress but that work is ongoing.
Just some of issues that I have picked up on during the season. Your feedback is always welcome.