Numbers game as AIL clubs take stock

THE country’s senior rugby clubs have been told they cannot expect to attract large crowds for All-Ireland League matches but can benefit from the growing numbers playing the sport.

That was the message from the Irish Rugby Football Union yesterday during a media briefing on the domestic game at the Aviva Stadium that also encompassed the growing number of participants at age grade level, the appointment of a child welfare officer in all clubs, a concerted effort to organise sevens rugby at domestic level and a focus on transitioning boys and girls into adult rugby players.

With the AIL set to be restructured for the 2011-12 season into two Division Ones of 10 teams each and two Division Twos of 16 clubs each, the IRFU is committed to maintaining the league as the flagship of domestic rugby.

Yet, with the provinces’ exploits in Europe capturing the imagination of the Irish sporting public rather than the clubs that feed players to them, IRFU Domestic Game Committee chair Steven Hilditch admitted that a return to the days of the early 1990s when a club game would command a bigger crowd than an interpro clash was an unrealistic objective.

“The AIL is not going to be like that again,” said Hilditch. “I think we’re putting in place something very positive but we will never again get to a point where 14,000 or 15,000 people are at an ‘ordinary’ shall we say AIL match.”

AIL clubs had rejected a regrouping of the league along regional or provincial lines and an improved road system had made travel for matches to opposite ends of the country less prohibitive, according to a surveys conducted by the IRFU among players and clubs.

Scott Walker, the IRFU’s domestic rugby manager, said initiatives were necessary at local level as the AIL was refocused but central initiatives such as Friday night derby games under floodlights and the possible introduction of rolling substitutes were all positive steps.

Pointing to a spike in participation among under-age players following Ireland’s Grand Slam in 2009, Walker said the IRFU “would be in a better position to cope now” with a Six Nations, Heineken Cup or, indeed, World Cup success.

Community Rugby Officers were being put in place in a pilot scheme at 11 clubs to assist volunteer coaches in coping with large numbers of budding Brian O’Driscolls and Paul O’Connells in a bid to create a “more welcoming environment” while the number of coaches, referees and facilities was keeping pace, Walker said.


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