A View to the Future.

It was while I was watching that enthralling rugby match between Ulster and Leinster at a very rainy Ravenhill – or should I say Kingspan? – that an idea that’s been lurking in the back of my mind for some time, crept into my consciousness.

The advances made by Irish provincial rugby since those long-ago days when redundancy offered me an overabundance of free time, and the occasions when I would fill an afternoon by walking out to Donnybrook from Amiens Stret Station to watch an inter-pro, have been nothing less than astonishing.

There might have been only forty or fifty semi-lost souls under the corrugated cover of the stand as the pride of Irish rugby battled for the attention of whatever national selectors were present; indeed, there was one occasion when a player from my local club spotted me and called out a friendly “Howya Bobby” as a line-out formed, such was the paucity of the attendance.

The arrival of professionalism, though bemoaned by some of the Alickadoos, brought rapid growth to the game which has benefitted not just the provinces but also the national team. First, we saw the emergence of The Celtic League, that grew into the Pro12, then into Pro14 and now The United Rugby Championship, comprising sides from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy, and South Africa, entertaining packed stadia across the five countries involved.

Nobody, on that cold wet day in Donnybrook, could have foreseen that progression, yet it happened through the foresight and determination of a dedicated group of visionaries.

Anyway, now to the idea that’s been hiding in the dark recesses of my mind; Cricket Ireland has had the benefit of a couple of years of the revived IP tournaments, and there can be no doubt that the “best vs best” allocation of players to the four regional Unions has sharpened the game of the national player pool.

However, I wonder how long this system can continue to be useful before it becomes a series of sort of “all pals together” practice games as familiarity builds contempt. Cricketers no less than other sportspeople need to be continuously testing themselves against opponents with whom they are not familiar and whose style with bat and ball are a little bit different from that which they confront in an IP series so that they are not fazed by the changes between their everyday game and the harder international form.

This, I believe, is the only way in which most of our national player cohort can really improve and sharpen their skills. A small proportion of them will find their way into the various “IPL, CPL/Hundred” style leagues but they will remain the minority of the group, and while this will prepare them for international tournaments, it won’t greatly benefit their colleagues. The much-vaunted Euro Slam unfortunately fell through the cracks and it’s time the power brokers started to put an alternative competition in place.

It’s my opinion that a tournament along the lines I have suggested could be that replacement, with the added bonus of providing a sense of identity for supporters and followers in the different regions.

Any time I’ve raised this concept in the past, it’s been shot down on the grounds that there isn’t sufficient money even to run a First Class tournament in Ireland, let alone finance the playing of such a competition with all its attendant expense, so there would be no point in even exploring the idea.

It's a fact that money follows success, and that success follows money in a sort of never-ending cycle; if there were a more attractive, inter-regional tournament encompassing sides from not just Ireland, but including Scotland, Netherlands, Denmark, and Wales (provided that the EWCB agreed) the proposition might be that much more enticing to sponsors.

I have no doubt that somewhere in the countries mentioned, there are enterprising entrepreneurs who might be persuaded that such a competition could be a novel marketing tool for their products or services, be they brewers, wine producers, Asian foods vendors, or supermarkets, whose businesses are transnational and who could be sold such a concept, given the growth of cricket in Europe through the immigration of many cricket-loving Asian people to the continent.

There’s also the potential for national sides from the Cricket Federations of emerging nations such as Germany, France, Spain, Italy etc. to be included in an expanded format as the concept takes root.

Imagination, innovation, and determination are the keys to future success.

With the drive of people with influence, business contacts, and the ear of the National Governing Bodies this can be achieved.

But, then again, maybe this idea should just be returned to the attic of my tortured mind.