‘How many times have you seen the top teams overturned by the bottom teams?’ is the question posed by Mike Ruddock, Lansdowne’s director of rugby.
A time-served rugby man long before he masterminded Wales’ glorious Grand Slam triumph in 2005, Ruddock held a head coach post with Worcester Warriors before coming to Ireland in 2011 to coach Lansdowne and Ireland U20s.
Ruddock, father of Irish international Rhys, is wary of his Division 1A rivals but that’s what makes the league great according to the Welshman.
“I love that about the league, with all due respect to the other leagues, you kind of know what the other results will be before you even kick off.
“With these matches, you’re going back to my old grounding of Welsh rugby where you get a bit of tribalism and parish rugby. Town against town, it’s full on.
“We see it with the teams who went down last year, Ballynahinch beat us in Ballynahinch and Galwegians beat us in Galway. So it’s on the day more than anything. It’s exciting and anyone who comes to watch AIL is in for a treat. Obviously the skill and fitness level aren’t at professional level but the endeavour and passion is full on.”
And Lansdowne have talent aplenty in the backline to show up “on the day”.
Despite injuries to proven try scorers Foster Horan and Fergal Cleary, Lansdowne appear to be well equipped in the backline, with Scott Deasy the mainstay since making the move from Munster in 2013. He has orchestrated a backline containing the likes of Daniel McEvoy and Ireland Sevens captain Tom Daly.
Entering his sixth season at the helm of Lansdowne, the 57-year-old Ruddock is looking to improve on last year’s disappointing finish of 7th place.
The Dublin outfit can now look towards that goal with a restocked pack following the mass exodus of two seasons ago. It’s worth noting that this time last year, skipper Ian Prendiville stood alone as the only surviving forward from the side that won the league in May 2015.
Despite losing Ireland U20 captain James Ryan to UCD, Lansdowne have had an influx of players with former Ireland U20 second row Stephen Gardiner, Joe McSwiney and Willie Earle all returning home from their travels.
Tyrone Moran and Tom Sexton arrive fresh from contracts with London Scottish and Western Force to bulk up the pack. This quintet of arrivals will complete a pack that already contains no.8 Ross Deacon as well as Leinster pair Peter Dooley and Max Deegan, the latter winning the player of the tournament at the U20 World Championship.
Garryowen (A) Terenure (H) Old Belvedere (H) Cork Constitution (A)
Stephen Gardiner (New Zealand) Tyrone Moran (London Scottish) Willie Earle (Dubai) Tom Sexton (Western Force) Joe McSwiney (Australia).
Tom Farrell (Bedford Blues) James Ryan (UCD).
“We’ve been a bit of a rollercoaster team in that we’ve won a couple of championships in the last three or four years and we’ve had a few average seasons. A lot of it is because in this league format, where there are no contracts and everyone’s amateur, you can have a big turnover of players and that happens to pretty much every team.”
“You can build a team like we have in the past and then all of a sudden 13 of your starting team are gone.”
“We’ve been lucky we’ve had a number of guys who returned to the club suddenly we’re a bit stronger in the forwards, hopefully, that’ll give us the ability to challenge the top half of the table.”
“Max Deegan is a great spot. We lost nearly our whole pack last year so it meant that James Ryan and Max came fresh out of school and into the first team.
I certainly think the game time assisted them both to have a big impact in the Junior World Cup. The league is a good breeding ground for those young players.
“He is a good young player to keep your eye on but our senior players will give us our biggest return. We had Peter Dooley on Saturday which was great to see. When the Six Nations and November series roll around will we see much of him or Tom Daly? I don’t know, particularly with the B&I Cup in action.
“We’re looking for our bread-and-butter guys to perform for us that aren’t part of the representative format but very established AIL players. Scott Deasy, of course, came from Cork Con. He’s been an outstanding player for us and certainly helped us to win the league two years ago with this excellent play and goal kicking.
“Tom Sexton is coming from the Western Force. I’d be surprised if he was with us for long more if there was to be an injury in the Irish provinces. Someone like Tom with his experience and background would get picked up.”
The opposition! I’ve been lucky enough to coach in a number of formats. I honestly believe the standard is very high and competitive. You just don’t know what’s around the corner. It’s a dynamic environment, boys can be off with the Ireland Sevens and Leinster A.
Last Saturday we had a very strong team out, in two weeks time we might be missing a few players.
That’s the great thing about the league, we don’t know how we’ll be shaping up in a month’s time and we know that every opponent we play against is very dangerous.
“My focus would be on, as a forwards coach, looking at Ireland’s succession plan around the tighthead prop. The league needs an extra sub or two on the bench. It would be good for Irish rugby to have a larger bench panel and give players more exposure to the league.”
“The AIL could be used as a development area to give more game time for props so that the provinces benefit and ultimately the Irish team will benefit because more and more props would be getting their grounding. Andrew Porter, for example, played very well for UCD last year and that’ll stand to him in the Leinster set-up.
“It could be very beneficial for Irish rugby. That would be my adjustment. Against the more political backdrops are the rugby specifics where the need in Irish rugby is the development of more tighthead props, particularly with Marty Moore going to Wasps.
“Once it (the scrum) goes unopposed it’s like a game of rugby league. I’m an old fashioned boy from the Welsh coal-mining towns so the scrum was the platform and that differentiated the game more than anything. I would like to see a directive that you’d have two specialist props and a hooker on the bench.
“You could have a very, very good tighthead who is just below the level of the club captain but he might not be able to play both sides (of the scrum). It’s very hard to play him on the bench. If you get an injury who’s going to cover the loosehead?
“Some guys are playing J1s because they can’t cover both sides whereas they could be playing higher level if you were allowed specialists on the bench.”