How Irish rugby clubs are surviving as All-Ireland League remains in lockdown limbo

How Irish rugby clubs are surviving as All-Ireland League remains in lockdown limbo

The Irish Examiner asked a cross-section of the AIL community about the impact of this latest lockdown and the options for playing again this season

Today should have seen a full slate of energia All Ireland League games, the second round of the new season for men’s and women’s clubs.

Yet with Ireland under lockdown again, the new season remains in a state of flux. Many senior clubs’ first teams have managed only a handful of games, mostly in last autumn’s short-lived, regionalised energia Community Series, since all domestic rugby activity was suspended by the IRFU during the first wave of the crisis on March 12.

The Irish Examiner asked a cross-section of the AIL community about the impact of this latest lockdown and the options for playing again this season.

MEN’S DIVISION 1A

Cork Constitution FC president Donal Lenihan.

Today’s R2 fixture that wasn’t: home v Garryowen

“We’re 129 years old in Cork Con and I picked a great year to be president!

“I’ve spent the year firefighting, looking for ways and means to supplement the loss of income from all the standard areas. It’s been hugely demanding.

“It’s frustrating. We’re a rugby club first and foremost so to have only four matches is disappointing and I feel sorry for the players at all levels. It’s not just the senior AIL team, the Under-20s is a huge challenge for all clubs to keep those players in the game and we have a J2 side that’s old-fashioned amateur rugby that brought a breath of fresh air around the club and a great bar on a Friday night. That’s all gone.

“We’ve been lucky, our main sponsors Kearys have stuck with us and been hugely supportive but we’ve had to change our fundraising. We have a business lunch every January and a Cheltenham Race Day, they’re predicated on getting 400 people into a room so we lost those last year and this.

“So we’re in the midst of a big fund-raising effort with what we call a Unity Wall, a tribute to past and present members and friends who stood by us in our time of need. It’s been a great exercise, allowed us to get up to speed with past members and helped to rekindle what playing for the club was all about and also say to them ‘look, you enjoyed your time as a player, now we’re all duty-bound to ensure it’s there for the next generation’.

“But we’d all rather be at matches than asking fellas for a few bob.”

WOMEN’S AIL

Ballincollig RFC director of rugby Denis Stevenson.

Today’s R2 fixture that wasn’t: away v Cooke

“We were all set to join the AIL for the first time in 11 years and building nicely but we’ve been stuck behind the 8-ball since lockdown. We played two games in the Community Series, signed a lot of new recruits, we’ve 46 women players registered in our AIL squad, but now we’re not even training, which is a disaster.

“Having two years with no relegation is a big thing for us and having put a lot of funding into the women’s programme we can build without worry. I just hope this season doesn’t count as one of the seasons so we need clarification but we’re hopeful we’ll get two full seasons.

“We would love to get games in this season. If the Community Series restarted we’d love that because we need our team to build. But if they come out and say we’re not coming back until September then so be it, we’ll do whatever the IRFU says.”

MEN’S DIVISION 2C

Sunday’s Well RFC head coach David Corkery.

Today’s R2 fixture that wasn’t: away v Enniscorthy

“What they should do is put everyone out of their misery and just pull the season completely. Others may disagree but because it’s so stop-start, you’re on one week, off the next because someone’s got Covid.

“The Community Series was okay, it kick-started the season and players had something to train for, because if they’ve nothing to train for they just will not train. Players have to have a goal, and we’ve had the Under-18s and U20s making up our numbers before it all got shut down again and even then they could only train in pods of 15 with no contact. It’s tough on the players because you’re basically a running club.

“The last thing you want is for it all to open up and then we get shut down again. You can’t plan anything and for a club like the Well where every single player is gold, you lose one or two and you’re struggling.

“So let the IRFU come out with a date for the start of next season so clubs at least have something to plan for. At the moment there’s nothing.”

Bruff RFC PRO Mike Rea.

Today’s R2 fixture that wasn’t: home v Tullamore

Bruff RFC PRO Mike Rea: ‘It’s a pity because we had a good start to the (Community Series), with a new sponsor.’ Pictured after Bruff’s 32-14 victory over Sunday’s Well last September were former Ireland international John Hayes, Tom Coleman (from sponsors Toco Welding Ltd), Mikey Cahill (Bruff RFC president), and Tom Coleman Snr.

Bruff RFC PRO Mike Rea: ‘It’s a pity because we had a good start to the (Community Series), with a new sponsor.’ Pictured after Bruff’s 32-14 victory over Sunday’s Well last September were former Ireland international John Hayes, Tom Coleman (from sponsors Toco Welding Ltd), Mikey Cahill (Bruff RFC president), and Tom Coleman Snr.

“I’d say this has concentrated the minds of clubs to go back to more localised competition. Trips up the north, to Derry and Bangor, it’s nice in theory but you’re asking yourself where the gain is for smaller clubs. These are €3,000, €4,000 weekend trips. All we have now for fundraising is a club lotto that started last year but we can’t really drive it as we’d like. We’re thankful for the small bit of money but we’re in limbo.

“It’s a pity because we had a good start to the (Community Series), with a new sponsor — Toco Engineering, who’ve been very good to us — and new gear and there was a nice buzz before it all fell flat again. I’d say clubs like Bruff would like to keep that system, especially for a year or two.”

THE IRFU

Director of Rugby Development Colin McEntee

“We need to get the shutters open again and get our playing group and volunteers back into their clubs, and we need to get schools rugby back up and running if we can.

“We had a meeting (on Thursday), the IRFU Rugby Committee and the four provinces and we felt it was best to give it two weeks. Let’s see where cases are and we’ll know if we’re in a good trajectory in relation to (cases) and then we’ll make hard and fast decisions.

“So should we take a knee to Covid when we don’t have to? I’d rather measure twice and cut once and manage the expectation.

“Let’s wait two weeks and say ‘lads, this is what’s possible, and here’s plan B and plan C. I think that is what our community wants. They don’t want us to go out and make quick decisions, it’s the wrong time to do that.”

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