The AIL is finally back after a long, long wait

Cork Con will be aiming to pick up where they left off in Division 1A.

Cork Con were last to lift the 1A trophy back in 2019.
Cork Con were last to lift the 1A trophy back in 2019.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

LAST WEEKEND BROUGHT the long-awaited return of the All-Ireland League as some of the country’s best female players got stuck into the first round of their expanded 10-team competition.

Railway Union notched an opening win away to rivals Blackrock, while UL Bohs and Old Belvedere earned big victories to confirm their status as contenders, but the most eye-catching result was Ballincollig’s defeat of Suttonians on what was the Cork club’s AIL debut.

This weekend, the men’s AIL gets underway, with clubs around the country no doubt buzzing tonight as they eagerly anticipate finally getting stuck in after a long wait.

It was March 2020 the last time a men’s AIL game was played and while the Community Series served a purpose in the meantime, this weekend is the real deal. All-Ireland League rugby might not grab the headlines it once did but there are thousands of people on this island who live and breath it. For them, it is a joy to be heading into a season of derbies, away days, relegations, promotions, and possible trophies.

It will be fascinating to see who picks up where they left off. Cork Con – who travel to Lansdowne this Saturday – won 14 games from 14 in the 2019/20 season before everything came to a shuddering halt. Now captained by Aidan Moynihan, Con were the last club to lift the Division 1A trophy back in 2019.

In Division 1B, Highfield were flying when the pandemic hit and were frustrated that promotion didn’t apply. The Cork side will be utterly determined to resume their rise this season and there seems little doubt they will be fighting for a spot in 1A.

jamie-clegg Bangor’s Jamie Clegg playing in a 2C match in February 2020. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Further down the divisions, the likes of MU Barnhall, Skerries, and Malahide will aim to resume their promotion-chasing form but the restart of the AIL also allows those who had been threatened by relegation to reset and come back stronger.

Can Ballynahinch make a bigger impact in 1A this time around, will Navan be more competitive in 1B, is this Ballina’s time to start shining in 2B? 

There are some exciting new and returning faces around the AIL too. Terenure, for example, have been greatly bolstered for their campaign in 1A by the additions of Jordan Coghlan, Cathal Marsh, and James Connolly among others.

Conor Dean is with St Mary’s, James Taylor has joined Highfield, Danny Qualter returns to Buccaneers, and Conor Gaston is back in Ireland with Old Wesley.

It will also be interesting to see how extensively players from the provincial academies are involved in the AIL this season. The IRFU’s figures show that there had been increased involvement for academy players in club rugby pre-pandemic and there’s little doubt that many of the country’s most talented young players are desperately in need of game time to get their development up and running again.

In the background, there is the lingering question of the future of the AIL. Is there space for a semi-professional layer in Irish rugby, a competition like the NPC in New Zealand, which is a huge feeder of players and coaches into the professional game every year?

energia-ail-branding It will be a busy weekend of AIL action. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Can the AIL clubs be more connected to the four provinces? Can Munster, Leinster, Ulster, and Connacht help to fully harness the domestic game’s potential? 

We don’t know what the future holds for the AIL but it is wonderful to simply have it back this season after a tough time for all involved in club rugby over the past 18 months. Some clubs have done well just to survive and right now, it feels a bit like Christmas Eve.

For those who haven’t yet experienced the delights of club rugby, there has never been a better time to engage. Being there to watch live sport is a pleasure we have been deprived of for too long and as society opens up again, being part of a community at a rugby club surely holds appeal for many.

Following professional rugby can be a thrill, but very little beats the sense of pride, attachment, and family that club rugby provides.  

AIL fixtures this weekend:

Friday 1 October

Division 1B:

Old Belvedere v Naas, Ollie Campbell Park, 8pm

Saturday 2 October [all kick-offs 2.30pm unless otherwise stated]

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Women’s AIL:

Cooke v Ballincollig, Shaw’s Bridge
Galwegians v UL Bohemian, Crowley Park, 12pm
Old Belvedere v Malone, Ollie Campbell Park, 5pm
Railway Union v Wicklow, Park Avenue, 5pm
Suttonians v Blackrock College, JJ McDowell Memorial Grounds, 5pm

Division 1A:

Clontarf v UCD, Castle Avenue
Dublin University v Garryowen, College Park
Lansdowne v Cork Constitution, Aviva Stadium Back Pitch
UCC v Terenure College, The Mardyke
Young Munster v Ballynahinch, Tom Clifford Park

Division 1B:

Banbridge v City Of Armagh, Rifle Park
Highfield v St. Mary’s College, Woodleigh Park
Malone v Navan, Gibson Park
Old Wesley v Shannon, Energia Park

Division 2A:

Buccaneers v Cashel, Dubarry Park
Nenagh Ormond v MU Barnhall, New Ormond Park
QUeen’s University v Ballymena, Dub Lane
Rainey Old Boys v Old Crescent, Hatrick Park
UL Bohemian v Dolphin, UL North Campus

Division 2B:

Belfast Harlequins v Malahide, Deramore Park
Blackrock College v Galway Corinthians, Stradbrook
Galwegians v Ballina, Crowley Park
Greystones v Dungannon, Dr Hickey Park
Sligo v Wanderers, Hamilton Park

Division 2C:

Bangor v Bruff, Upritchard Park
Enniscorthy v Midleton, Alcast Park
Skerries v Omagh Academicals, Holmpatrick
Sundays Well v Clonmel, Musgrave Park
Tullamore v City Of Derry, Spollanstown.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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