George Millar Thoughts on a fantastic week of grassroots rugby and a disapointing Kingspan Experience.

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Having travelled throughout Ulster in recent days to watch club rugby at its best. What have I learned about the state of the club game in Ulster at Senior and Qualifying level. Yes there is a vibrancy that provokes a reaction from coaches, players and supporters in their push for league and Cup honours. This was evidenced by the progress of Ballynahinch, City of Derry , Malone and Ballymena to make the semi final draw of the First Trust Ulster Senior Cup. Despite the distraction of European rugby that embraces thousands of Ulster followers who are oblivious to the existence of club rugby in Ulster, we had the opening round of the Ulster Bank All Ireland Junior Cup. We had wins for Bangor, CIYMS and Clogher Valley with Portadown coming up just short in a titanic struggle away to current holders Enniscorthy. The three Ulster winners will now enter the eagerly awaited draw for the quarter finals. Did this success merit any media coverage !!! Ulster have suffered two defeats in their opening European games with the Ulster Ravens losing all three of their British & Irish Cup matches. In Business terms this would be regarded as a disappointing return on your investment with a footnote – “Room for improvement”. Having witnessed a television camera man trying to get the crowd going at the Kingspan for much needed footage, has the heart and soul gone from the true supporters. I left the Kingspan concerned that the atmosphere was ‘flat’. The aristocratic French visitors with minimal effort had suppressed both the team and home supporters. Should those managing Ulster rugby be concerned !! What excited me more from my rugby travels was not the experience at the Kingspan stadium on Sat afternoon but the enjoyment of watching dedicated amateur club players at the Palace Grounds, Deramore Park and Hatrick Park giving everything for their team. How many Ulster rugby supporters would know the Ulster clubs who play at these venues! How many would have been interested in the outcome of these matches! Do they know or care about such tournaments as the First Trust Senior Cup or the Ulster Bank All Ireland Cup. Clubs play a crucial role in creating the opportunities for young children to be introduced to the game of rugby through their Mini and Youth sections. What concerns me is that even though these young players will aspire to play for their club sides in future years you will see very few of these children and their parents attending club games. Is it the attraction of rugby and soccer on television or a visit to the Kingspan stadium that discourages young players and their families from attending club rugby in Ulster. How many young club players would know the identity of their 1st xv players and aspire to follow in their footsteps. To promote rugby in Ulster we take our lead from the President of Ulster rugby. In his notes for the games against Glasgow and Toulon no mention was made of Domestic rugby in Ulster. Are we to ignore the grassroots of the game and it’s importance in sustaining rugby at professional and club level in Ulster. The AIL is vital in developing and providing game time for Ulster rugby players; ask Stewart McCloskey and Andy Warwick. Many club members have said to me that if we could only encourage these Ulster rugby supporters to take an interest in their local club, how much more vibrant would they become. What was my best experience of rugby during the last week ; it has to be that eleven try thriller played between Rainey and Malone on Friday night, on their new 3G pitch in the Quarter Finals of the First Trust Senior Cup. What excitement it provided for the hundreds of supporters in attendance. A truly great advert for the club game in Ulster. Yes the Kingspan did not excite me on Sat. There is an opportunity for the Ulster rugby supporters and their families to embrace the club game in Ulster and help to develop that community ethos and sustain the future of a game we all treasure so passionately. All the ‘Stakeholders’ have a role to play, whether in Ulster rugby or the committees in the Ulster Branch and clubs.

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