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Dublin: 7 °C Monday 18 February, 2019

'We felt it was a really strong case to align the professional and the club game'

The IRFU had hoped to restructure the All-Ireland League into two top divisions.

THE ALL-IRELAND League continues this weekend with its usual busy schedule up and down the country, but the future of the domestic competition remains unclear.

There is barely a mention of the AIL in the IRFU’s new strategic plan for the next five years, a document which was released this week.

You can make out ‘All-Ireland League’ in small letters as part of the ‘IRFU Player Pathway’ for the male game on page 19, but we don’t know for certain how the AIL is going to serve as an element of that pathway in the years ahead. 

Lansdowne celebrate with the cup after the game Lansdowne are the current AIL Division 1A champions. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

The IRFU had hoped to push forward by “narrowing the gap between the professional game and the amateur game,” according to director of rugby development Scott Walker, but the union’s proposal for a restructuring of the AIL wasn’t well received by the clubs over the summer.

Essentially, the plan had been to create two top divisions of eight teams, with an unlimited number of professionally-contracted players involved, and relegation and promotion suspended to ensure each of the four provinces had clubs involved in the initial years. 

With intimations that Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht would link with their clubs to a greater extent, perhaps sharing coaching resources and more, the idea was that these two AIL divisions would serve as a genuine hub between the pro and amateur games.

The current regulations allow four professionally-contracted players to be selected in a club’s matchday squad, but there were some concerns around amateur player safety if this was greatly increased.

Some clubs also opposed the suspension of relegation and promotion, even more so for the fact that there are currently no Connacht or Ulster clubs in Division 1A of the AIL. 

The clubs’ rejection of the proposal has left the IRFU in a tricky position, particularly with the British and Irish Cup – in which the provinces’ A teams played – having been disbanded at the end of last season.

The inaugural Celtic Cup, which involved the four Irish A teams and their counterparts from the four Welsh regions, is already over for the current season, Leinster emerging as champions at the end of a seven-week run.

Tempers flare during the game Munster A and Leinster A in action in the Celtic Cup. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

So where will the professionals who don’t make the provinces’ Champions Cup or Guinness Pro14 matchday squads get their rugby moving forward?

Academy players are already accumulating the vast majority of their game time in the AIL, but the IRFU felt that a raising of the level by concentrating the quality into two top divisions would serve better to develop promising players.

The saga has left the IRFU with a conundrum it hopes can be solved in conjunction with the AIL, but the union’s performance director David Nucifora says a solution needs to be found sooner rather than later.

“We’re hopeful that we can find some compromise there, but at the moment we’re just moving forward,” said Nucifora at the launch of the IRFU’s new strategic plan.

“From a professional game point of view, we presented what we felt was a really strong case to align the professional and the club game to make sure that things were strong and sustainable going forward for the Irish game.

“That didn’t happen. Whether it happens going forward, I don’t know, but at the same time, we can’t sit still from the professional game point of view. We have to keep looking for alternatives that are going to best suit the development or our developing players.”

A formal review of the Celtic Cup will take place with the Welsh Rugby Union, but Nucifora says the initial feedback from players, coaches and support staff has been positive.

What happens next remains unclear, though Nucifora stressed again that the IRFU can’t hang around.

David Nucifora David Nucifora at the IRFU's launch of its new strategic plan. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“If the AIL alternative does come to fruition, that would be great, but if it doesn’t we can’t sit there waiting for something to come back to us,” said the Australian.

“We have to be looking at alternatives because the game keeps marching on at the elite end.”

Walker, a key figure in all of this, echoed Nucifora’s sentiments when asked to define what the IRFU wants the AIL to be.

“The proposal we discussed with the clubs and branches over the summer was very much about narrowing the gap between the professional game and the amateur game to make sure that we have one programme, the same type of philosophy we have across all elements of the rugby programme,” said Walker.

“It’s also ensuring there’s a quality game at all levels. While we’ve suspended the implementation of those plans, the conversations are ongoing with the branches and the clubs, and they’re fairly active conversations to discuss what are the alternatives and options that could come into place.

“Time is the enemy, in that there needs to be a solution for developing players and there also needs to be a solution for clubs.”

Walker acknowledged that having 50 clubs currently involved in the AIL makes matters more complicated, particularly as “what might be good for one set of clubs at the top end is different for clubs down the bottom.”

He also recognises that the proposal over the summer “probably had too many moving parts in it,” so now we wait to see if the IRFU and the AIL clubs can come to an agreement.

Scott Walker IRFU director of rugby development, Scott Walker. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“When we had the initial conversations I wouldn’t say there was complete opposition,” said Walker. “There was an acknowledgement that there needs to be some modernisation of the league going forward.

“There’s very much a balance in how you engage and how much to command in regards to what that change is. We’ve put a proposal on the table, it’s been discussed, there are obviously some concerns there and there will be more conversations with the clubs.

“We would hope to get a solution in the next few months.”

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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Murray Kinsella

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