Club standards may fall flat on level playing pitch
Today at Donnybrook is the last chance for Cork Con to win back-to-back AIL finals. And it is the first and last chance for Old Belvedere to win a final. When it's done and dusted we will be saying goodbye to yet another incarnation of the All-Ireland League, and readying ourselves for the next version which kicks off in the autumn.
After years of pulling and dragging, the model we will have next season looks the best equipped to suit the needs of the club game: two top divisions of 10 teams each playing home and away, with just one automatic promotion from Division 1A, and another place up for grabs via a play-off.
So then, a league with an escape hatch at one end and a trap door at the other, and in between there are 18 games where at the end of the last day the club at the top of the table is declared the winner.
This will appeal to Cork Con who have written the manual on how to finish the regulation phase of the league in pole position. It might appeal less to sponsors Ulster Bank given that RTE have been bringing their cameras along to the semi-finals and finals since we've had the knock-out conclusion.
In any case the new format is clean and simple, and since we first went down the road of a national league in October 1990, this might well work. That depends of course on what you're looking for from this competition.
Over the years, framing a national league has become an exercise in compromise, rather than a pursuit of excellence. Having been fairly ruthless at the outset, ironically enough given that it was the amateur era, since the dawn of professionalism the IRFU have used democracy to avoid taking hard decisions.
Even still they are stepping on the brakes. This afternoon the teams will be limited to three fully contracted players (an issue for Cons) and next season that will be two, only one of whom can be a forward. This comes in tandem with the new rule next season that fully contracted players can operate only in the first division. So why load those players into the top end and then restrict their involvement by making it a max of two per team on match day?
Ostensibly this is because it will make for a more level playing pitch, so those with no pros won't have to go out and face a handful of them in the AIL. And indeed it will flatten the ground. It will also make for a less attractive product because those who bother to go along and watch will be denied access to the best available.
This doesn't bother the union too much for they have the provincial A players wrapped up in the B&I Cup. In the way that they see Sevens as a scourge from hell -- was it not neat a couple of months back the way they lobbed development of the short game onto the clubs as if it were a juicy bone rather than a cast-off? -- so too do they see the AIL as having little or no relevance to the pro game. The remarkable thing is that it hasn't diluted the ambition of the clubs.
They still chase the AIL like the last chopper out of Saigon. And still they throw money at it which they know they will never see again. Why? Pride, and wanting to be the best. Makes you wonder though if the IRFU ever harnessed this ambition what might be achieved.
In a country as small as ours, failing to exploit this resource makes no sense. On the face of it the schools are doing a great job in providing players for the provincial academies and the professional game. Just look at the throughput to Leinster. Of the 17 home-produced players in Leinster's 23 yesterday, all but three were from the elite rugby schools system, or at least those for whom rugby is a major part of the school ethos. The figure in Munster was 15 out of 18, though that may well be coming down over the next few seasons. The reality is that you have to be exceptional to get to the paid ranks from a club base -- Seán O'Brien being the current poster boy of that gang.
Along the way Irish rugby is losing a raft of potential pros because the quality of coaching and competitions at youth level is so far off the structure of the schools game. We're not advocating that clubs should be a mirror of those schools which put extraordinary time and effort into the pursuit of silverware instead of the development of players, but it desperately needs to be ramped up.
The only people who can do this coherently are the IRFU. Investment is not a word that excites anyone in the accountancy department in Lansdowne Road but if it increases our chances of success at the top end -- which funds the game top to bottom -- then it's worth considering.
The spin-off would be that you fill in what are the fallow years in Irish clubs, and provide better players for them down the line, regardless of whether they get into the professional game. And better players will make for a better league.
Cork Con v Old Belvedere,
Sunday Indo Sport