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Disbanding of the B&I Cup represents real opportunity for AIL to grow

Joe Schmidt recently said the club game is “the base” rugby in Ireland is built on.

JOE SCHMIDT WAS at Terenure College RFC last month to give a speech at the pre-match lunch before the Dublin club’s win over local rivals St. Mary’s in Division 1A of the Ulster Bank League.

Fresh from Ireland’s Grand Slam victory, Schmidt brought the house down with some outstanding comedic delivery – really, the video is worth a look – before finishing up by thanking the various club folk and alickadoos assembled for the game at Lakelands Park.

“Without the people we have in the room, we don’t have the game,” said Schmidt, whose son Tim plays for Terenure. “Because this is the base it’s built upon.”

Joe Schmidt attends the game Joe Schmidt at a Terenure College RFC game in January. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

It’s another huge day for the league today, with play-off spots to be decided across the five divisions, but crowds are likely to be sparse in many places.

Despite the lack of attendance at many games, excellent players and coaches are showing their quality weekend after weekend around Ireland.

Garryowen scrum-half and captain Neil Cronin securing a contract with Munster for next season is a boost for the AIL and proof that there is talent in the league, but there is huge scope for growing it.

Anyone who has been involved in club rugby in this country understands the hard work, passion, love for the game and also the enjoyment that sustains clubs across the nation.

Players, coaches, supporters, club officials, referees and volunteer cooks, car park attendants, caretakers – all of them give up their weekends and many of their weeknights for the benefit of Irish rugby.

When the Ireland head coach is saying that the club game is the base rugby in Ireland is built upon, it’s worth taking notice.

Schmidt’s words probably go against how some people in the club game view the IRFU’s attitude towards the All-Ireland League – which is sponsored by Ulster Bank – with many of the opinion that the union don’t really care.

The All-Ireland League has shrunk away in the public consciousness as the professional game has grown and the provinces have become the vast majority of rugby fans’ go-to teams when they’re looking to support the sport.

Willie Earle with Neil Cronin Neil Cronin will join Munster ahead of next season. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Among the gripes from those in the club game in recent years has been the British and Irish Cup, in which the four provinces’ A teams have competed, with the fixtures in that competition often clashing with AIL games and therefore weakening the clubs as their players are missing.

However, the B&I Cup is being disbanded at the end of the current season and there is a real opportunity for the AIL to benefit if the clubs, the provinces and the IRFU can work positively together on what comes next.

A restructuring of the AIL looks certain in the near future too, most likely the season after next.

The provinces’ A teams will remain part of the rugby calendar and there will be A fixtures next season, while a new competition involving Welsh and Scottish sides is probably further down the line.

But the IRFU has expressed a willingness for A fixtures – in whatever form comes next – to take place in a start-if-season block in the future, before the AIL begins, as well as on weekends when the AIL is not in action.

There is a determination to avoid clashes between AIL fixtures and A games in the future, and that would be a major positive moving forward.

The issue for many clubs might be accepting that the AIL could be reduced.

There are currently five divisions of 10 teams each, but the union and provinces believe that 50 clubs playing in an All-Ireland league is simply far too many. And the fact that many clubs are being stretched to breaking point financially by competing at an All-Ireland level – clubs cover their own travel and accommodation costs – is a huge concern.

It would be difficult for some clubs not to be involved but there is a growing feeling that a more focused All-Ireland League consisting of just two divisions is the solution, potentially with 10 teams in each divison.

The Cork Con team celebrate Cork Con won Division 1A of the league last season. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

That would mean struggling clubs returning to provincial leagues instead, while still having scope to be promoted back into the national divisions.

Having just two divisions would almost certainly mean a greater concentration of playing and coaching quality, but it opens up another issue, however.

Each province would have to have strong club representation within the leagues. A good geographical spread would be important to ensure that all four of the provinces would release their players to the clubs when not featuring in Pro14 or Champions Cup action.

Academy players are currently playing much of their rugby in the AIL but there is major scope for more senior players from Munster, Leinster, Connacht and Ulster to play club games when they are not involved for their provinces, rather than simply sitting in tracksuits on the sidelines at Thomond Park, the RDS, the Sportsground and Kingspan Stadium.

So, a restructured AIL would have to have enough clubs from each of Ulster, Munster, Connacht and Leinster in the top divisions – the provinces simply wouldn’t send players to play in provincial leagues.

Generally speaking, the provinces can still be a little wary of club rugby, unsure if the quality of the coaching, strength and conditioning and medical services is good enough.

That’s unfair in some cases – there are many superb off-field staff in the AIL – but the provinces can play a role in lifting those levels if they genuinely invest in club rugby and see it as a tool to help make themselves better.

At present, there is only some connectivity between the provinces and the clubs that represent them in the AIL. Imagine the possibilities if the provinces share all of their intellectual, coaching, medical and organisational knowledge with their clubs.

Why can AIL clubs not be seen as hubs for the provinces – extensions of their work onto a broader scale?

Joey Carbery goes over for a try Joey Carbery benefited from club rugby with Carbery. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

The IRFU see the benefit of this from a professional pathway point of view – i.e. in terms of producing more and better players for the provinces and Ireland – but they also see the benefits in ensuring the sustainability of the clubs.

While the AIL is never likely to return to its halcyon days when thousands of people gathered to watch the best clubs clash, increased resources and increased professional attention can only ensure that more fans turn their attention to the league too.

As Schmidt suggested, club rugby is the base for the game in Ireland. In that light, the next steps are truly important.

The end of the B&I Cup and the incoming restructuring of the AIL provide an opportunity that can’t be missed.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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