AIL clubs left in the wayside as the IRFU drives on for dollars

AIL clubs left in the wayside as the IRFU drives on for dollars

I read with interest the recent proposals from the Cork County Board to revamp their championship structures in an effort to cater for the differing demands and requirements of their club and county players.

One of those discussed — Option C — would have meant five guaranteed round-robin games for clubs in the middle of the summer, albeit with two of those played without their inter-county stars.

(Clubs voted for Option A which will see one round of games played in April and two more in August — all with county players available).

It has always struck me as entirely unfair that club hurlers and footballers around the county are left in limbo for large tracts of the summer, in many cases due to the fact a teammate is part of the county panel but maybe nowhere near the starting side.

Regardless, the club fixture list is shaped entirely by the demands of the county teams.

This is a journey that rugby clubs around the country have already travelled with the advent of professionalism in 1995 changing the landscape entirely. Clubs established over 100 years in advance of the game going “open” had to come to terms with the fact that, what they perceived as their players, weren’t “theirs” anymore.

It didn’t help that this transition was running parallel with the new lovechild of the game in rugby country — the All-Ireland League.

In the years immediately following the seismic shift in the status of the game, there were more people attending the top AIL games, especially in Munster, than their provincial counterparts.

Fewer than 500 turned up for a Munster interprovincial against Leinster in Garryowen’s club ground at Dooradoyle in 1998 — at a time when clashes between the traditional Munster clubs in the AIL were attracting audiences 20 times that amount.

The likes of Ronan O’Gara, Donncha O’Callaghan, Frankie Sheahan, John Kelly, and Anthony Horgan would play for Munster in Europe but return to Cork Constitution for the entire AIL campaign, a system replicated across all four provinces.

The arrival of the Celtic League in 2001, incorporating teams from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, changed all of that. The expanded fixture list meant that the vast majority of the contracted elite players were no longer available to their clubs which, over time, served to dilute the audience and wider interest in AIL games.

Things changed in the noughties, especially when Munster’s march on Europe began to gain traction. The buzz and atmosphere associated with following your province to previously unchartered territories became mightily attractive.

In the decade since Munster’s last Heineken Cup success in 2008, the disconnect between the amateur and professional game has become even greater. The AIL expanded into five divisions and some clubs that were categorised as junior throughout their history, suddenly became senior in the IRFU hierarchy.

The expanded structure masked the quality somewhat by designating the top two leagues Division 1A and 1B and the remaining three as 2A, 2B and 2C. Attempts to re-structure the AIL in recent times have been frustrated by some clubs whose sole desire is to retain their senior status.

An emotive issue within Irish rugby at present is the debate surrounding the third tier of the game.

Clubs fully accept that the national side and the four provinces represent the top two strands. Most within the IRFU see the provincial A sides as the third tier while clubs in Division 1A and 1B in particular, where contracted professionals are allowed play (even if with less frequency than before) see themselves as an important part of that third tier. Provincial academy players can play at any level of the AIL.

Integrating academy and developing professionals more into the club structure would not only enable them play far more games than they are getting at present — some play less than 10 a year — it would also help to lift the profile of the AIL, add value to potential sponsors, and connect young players to a club that will be there for them, long after their provincial days are over.

When the British and Irish Cup, contested by A teams from Ireland, along with sides from Wales, Scotland and England’s Greene King IPA Championship, ceased to exist at the end of last season, IRFU director of rugby David Nucifora looked at revamping the AIL with a view to filling the void and securing that badly needed game time for those A squad players.

A restructured season incorporating games with AIL clubs, supplemented by a reduced number of A fixtures between the provinces and against some overseas opposition, looked a very attractive proposition to all parties.

As with all new formats however, finding the right mix proved challenging from the outset.

The IRFU’s proposal of an eight-team league at the top of the pyramid, with two club sides from each province, was never going to wash. Neither was the intention to ringfence those sides for a minimum period of two years.

What should only have been the starting point for negotiation was lost as all five divisions of the AIL were looking for a say.

Promotion and relegation is a must for me as every club is entitled to aim for progression to the top. Unfortunately, Nucifora lost patience and moved on, commissioning a hastily arranged Cara Cup in Boston incorporating A squads from all four provinces along with a new professional entity, the colourfully named New England Free Jacks, who make their debut in American Major League rugby next season.

The fact that these fixtures were arranged to coincide with a crucial period in the AIL when clubs are fighting for either a top four play-off slot or in a battle to avoid relegation created massive hardship for some clubs and has left a bad taste at grassroots level.

With the head coaches in Munster and Leinster insisting on keeping the vast majority of their squads at home in order to conduct meaningful training sessions in the lead in to the Champions Cup semi-finals, the academy management teams in both provinces were left making frantic phone calls, many to clubland, in order to fill their squad rosters for the trip to the USA.

Nucifora’s stand left the provinces in an awkward position as they were the ones left dealing with the grief that has understandably come their way from clubs for whom the timing of this meaningless competition could not have been worse.

The Munster A squad that travelled last weekend included only six fully contracted players, three of whom, Duncan Williams, James Hart, and Dave O’Callaghan, have already been told they will not be offered renewed contracts next year.

Twelve academy players are included with the balance made up of nine club players, with little or no connection to the professional game, drawn from clubs ranging in standard from Division 1A to 2C.

The Leinster A squad comprises of a strong mix from their academy and sub academy, supplemented by players from AIL clubs.

Given that the Leinster Professional Board has made it absolutely clear, in a letter issued by representatives of the 18 Leinster AIL clubs, that “they do not consider that the AIL is part of the fundamental development pathway for professional players in the province” the selection of club players to travel to Boston rankles even more.

Later today Munster, who beat the Free Jacks 38-19 last Saturday, and Leinster play against each other at the Union Point Sports Complex in Weymouth, Massachusetts.

Munster have already recalled six of the side that featured last weekend to bolster the senior squad for training, meaning that the team playing today is densely populated with amateur club players.

I would imagine the attendance in Weymouth will struggle to match even the paltry few that turned up in Dooradoyle all those years ago but, you can be certain that, amongst them will be attentive scouts from that newly formed American Major League, eager to hoover up the brighter young players coming through the system in this country.

Dollar signs and green cards will prove difficult for some of these young men to turn their backs on.

It is reputed the IRFU will pocket in the region of €250,000 for allowing the four provincial sides — Ulster and Connacht sent A squads west two week ago — participate across the Atlantic. As for the clubs, all they got from rugby HQ was a giant two fingers.

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