Former Cork Constitution coach Brian Walsh reckons the All-Ireland League is “still riddled with issues” as it fights to maintain relevance in a packed Irish rugby calendar.
The IRFU’s most recent strategic plan stresses “both the professional and domestic strands of Irish rugby are mutually dependent on each other” but Walsh — who spent a decade coaching with Con and railed against the IRFU over a number of issues — says he isn’t sure where the Ulster Bank League will fit in the long-term national structure.
“I wouldn’t be against change, if there’s a strategy behind it,” he said. “The league has been going through a review process, and lots of things have changed. The financial side — sponsorship and travel — has become extremely difficult which has an impact at all levels. It has to be tied to the ambition of a particular club, and the level at which they want to operate. But the big question is where the AIL fits into our national structure.”
Walsh says this has been “a grey area” since the introduction of the A interprovincial games, which he says put greater distance between the amateur and professional games. But Walsh highlights the club internationals and the fact players such as Matt Healy and Craig Ronaldson have won professional contracts based on starring in the Ulster Bank League as evidence of its relevance.
“The old three-tier structure (club, province, country) used to work very well; Ireland’s golden generation came out of that, the provinces won numerous Heineken Cup based on players who came out of that system,” argues the former Munster full-back.
“Now we’re starting to see a different structure where not as many players have spent much time at the highest level of the club game. That’s diluting the standards of the club game too, but is it benefiting players in terms of moving them onto the provincial setups, and further again? I have my doubts.”
Differing priorities for clubs could dictate the AIL’s future according to Walsh; those aforementioned financial difficulties may see smaller clubs eschew a national competition.
The IRFU addressed these financial concerns by revealing in April payments to club players will be outlawed from next September, as they effectively seek to re-amateurise the game.
The national body’s analysis of annual club accounts show there has been, on average, a 40-50% decrease in club sponsorship as well as a 30-40% reduction in bar revenue. The cumulative debt across 121 clubs totalled €20.5m in the 2011/12 season, with 12 clubs saddled with loans exceeding €500,000.
Senior male player numbers have remained relatively static in recent years — increasing marginally from 23,746 in 2007 to 24,377 in 2011 — but Walsh says a suitable structure must be found to appeal to everyone.
“It’s a difficult one, because you have first division clubs who want to maintain competition at a very high level, while other clubs are looking at the different aspects of survival, and the financial burdens attached to that,” he explains.
“It wouldn’t surprise me to see something like the two divisions played on a national basis and subsequent divisions where you wouldn’t have to travel as far to get meaningful competition. But the key is whether it’s seen as part of the national plan, and seen as a development tool for bringing players through.
“I don’t know if that’s the case at the moment — it’s in limbo. But we need to be careful.”
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