Congratulations to Leinster and Ulster who, in a few days time, will battle for Europe’s most prestigious club rugby trophy, the Heineken Cup.
The success of Irish rugby at the club level has been little short of astounding in recent years and this upcoming final, at Twickenham in London before a sellout crowd, will only add to the sense that the game is thriving in Ireland.
And yet, despite all the obvious success at the top, and the popularity of rugby for the very youngest players, the situation facing the clubs that are not in the professional top tier is anything but a healthy one. Many of the clubs that still play the game at a semi-professional level, but with amateur junior sides, are facing severe financial difficulties and are also having a hard time fielding teams.
Some predicted this outcome when the game turned professional: this being growth and expansion at the top, and a contraction in the lower reaches.
Whether it is possible to reverse this trend is unclear. In the meantime, as is the case with major professional sports in the U.S. the trend is towards fewer players beyond a certain age and an expanding base of paying customers eager to see a game played at the very highest level.