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Dublin: 5 °C Monday 27 January, 2020

'People need to leave their egos behind and actually say this is a competition that has a place'

AIL rugby is too entertaining to be sold so short.

ON THIS WEEK’S The42 Rugby Weekly, Bernard Jackman and Murray Kinsella joined Gavan Casey to discuss the predicament in which Munster find themselves in light of Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery’s impending departures, Declan Kidney’s star-studded recruitment drive at London Irish and, of course, tomorrow’s mouth-watering Heineken Champions Cup final between Leinster and Saracens.

Also explored was Cork Con’s second AIL Division 1A title in three years, and how the league generally warrants greater recognition — and a greater audience — given the sheer entertainment and high-quality rugby now on offer at club grounds up and down the country.

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Bernard Jackman: “I actually think the standard of AIL [Division] 1A — the top four teams — is getting better and better. It’s a league that doesn’t get much love, but in 1A the likes of Trinity, ‘Tarf, Lansdowne, Cork Con — they actually play a really good brand of rugby. The boys are all athletic, they’re in good shape physically, technically they’re good.

“And it’s actually a competition that doesn’t get as much recognition as it deserves in terms of the quality of rugby in it.”

Gavan Casey: “Why doesn’t it get that recognition?”

BJ: “Ah, there’s no sponsor, there are rumoured changes to the format, there’s an expanded ‘A’ league which is dragging players from it; even six weeks ago there was a competition in America where because of the timing of it, they [Munster 'A' and Leinster 'A'] had to dip into the club game. And of course fellas are going to take that opportunity to go and play for an ‘A’ side and leave the AIL, because that’s where everyone wants to go. But there just seems to be a lack of alignment and communication, and a lack of understanding of where it fits.

People who are in the room — people need to leave their egos behind and actually say this is a competition that has a place. Particularly at the higher levels.

“I understand some of the clubs in 2A and 2B potentially might want to go back to a provincial format because of travel costs, et cetera, but there are clubs who want to compete on a national or nationwide level, who want to be a platform for players to go and play at the highest level.

I genuinely think there is a place for it. I know they’ve got a sponsor coming in next year, Energia. That’ll help it. But there just needs to be a decision made around what is the best structure to allow the clubs to prosper but also develop players. And then stick to that. And not every couple of years have a crisis meeting and maybe change, because that doesn’t give you any sustainability or concrete foundations on which to grow.

Shane Daly celebrates scoring a try with Alex McHenry and Sean French Munster youngsters: Shane Daly celebrates scoring a try with Alex McHenry and Sean French. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Murray Kinsella: “There has definitely been an improvement in those top teams, and an improvement in the quality and style of rugby they’re playing which I think people would really engage with.

“Watching Trinity play is much more enjoyable than a lot of Pro14 games because there’s such a fear of losing in those games — there’s probably just more pressure on players in the professional game.

“Really, the AIL is watchable, but it’s hard to watch because there’s so much rugby on all the time on TV.

“It’s kind of strange that we’ve gone through the whole season seemingly without progress. Last summer, the clubs kind of rejected that proposal from [David] Nucifora and the IRFU to go to two top leagues that are essentially semi-professional and feed into the professional game.

“The Cara Cup that you mentioned: yeah, it was probably a great experience for a lot of players, but even look at Munster’s team for one of their games — they had two scrum-halves on the bench.”

GC: “They didn’t even have a full bench.”

MK: “Yeah, they didn’t even have a full 23, so is it really that valuable a competition? I don’t know how high the quality of games was.

Essentially, the New England Freejacks were paying for them [Munster and Leinster] to be over there. So you could understand the clubs’ anger — particularly at that time of the season — with taking players away. Clearly, they’re at loggerheads there with the IRFU and there’s a good bit of animosity in that relationship.

“It seems like we’ve made no progress on this, and it’s really hard to gauge the IRFU’s desire other than, ‘How can we get this to serve our professional game?’ Which it shouldn’t just be about. It has to be about more than that. The sport itself is about more than just that — the tiers below the professional game are just as important because people engage that way, they get into rugby that way, they fall in love with rugby that way; loads of the guys in the Ireland squad would have loved their experiences with clubs.”

Dan Sheehan scores a try despite the efforts of Ben Reilly and Vincent Gavin Dan Sheehan scores a try for Trinity against Clontarf. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

GC: “Just to touch upon something you both said, which is how eminently watchable it is, and you mentioned, there, Murray, how the levels below professional rugby are equally important; during the year — February, March — you turn on eir Sport, there’s a Leinster schools game on and it’s unbelievable to watch in terms of entertainment and the quality of play. They’re lads doing their Leaving Cert — they’re 17, 18 years old. I watched UCC play rugby in Division 1B last season as they got promoted and it was like watching the Barbarians — it was unbelievably entertaining.

“And you just wonder, if you can package a schools competition to be watchable — to be something that even a casual fan might leave on the TV when they’re flicking through the channels — then surely you can do it with a national competition of senior players?”

BJ: “Well, BBC Wales lost the rights to the Pro14 this season but they wanted to continue their rugby coverage so they took on the rights for the Welsh Premiership, which is their equivalent of the AIL. They showed games on Friday night and it was back to the old rivalries in Welsh rugby, so Neath against Pontypridd… They actually started to get some really significant viewership.

And I promise you, because I watch both, that the AIL, quality-wise, is far superior.

“I think the issue in the Welsh Premiership is you’ve got a lot of older ex-pros just kind of knocking out a living and there’s not as many young players in the system there as there is over here. So you don’t really go watch that to see the next Joey Carbery, you know?

“The standard and the way teams want to play is superior over here. So definitely, it is something that needs to be brought to the wider public whether that’s through a TV channel or that’s through streaming. Last year I watched a good bit of MLR because it was available on a stream — at least it gives you a way of watching some live rugby.

“I’d imagine all of those things will be looked at over the summer. Particularly with a new sponsor coming in, it’s a really good chance to just clear the decks and start afresh — because I guarantee you the product is good. If you’ve got a crap product, you’re clutching at straws — the basic requirement is a good product, and we just need to get it out there.”

GC: “Like, even when a club has a camera at the side of the pitch, and they have anyway because they’re going to be recording the game and analysing it, but if they tweet out a clip — I remember Eamonn Mills scoring an unbelievable try for Lansdowne a couple of years ago; the IRFU had a couple of cameras at Con’s semi-final against Trinity and I just tweeted out a clip of Sean French doing a double ankle-tap — people absolutely love it!

“It’s a massive thing in combat sports, the NBA are massively into it — just using footage to grow the sport. Even if you had a couple of cameras at games and just tweeted out a couple of highlights…”

BJ: “There was a try for Malahide I saw…”

MK: “Yeah, with the offload!”

BJ: “Which was phenomenal!”

GC: “Unbelievable score!”

BJ: “So listen, there’s quality there in bits that people would engage with.

“It’s just about getting it out there.”

Gavan Casey, Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman tee up Saturday’s Champions Cup final and look at the backroom problems in Munster.:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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‘I’d question how this was allowed happen. It has played out incredibly badly’

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