Provincial coaches turn their noses up at AIL – they don't trust it
The All-Ireland League kicks off this weekend and clubs up and down the country will begin a long and arduous campaign.
I was involved with Young Munster last season and I found it a bit of an eye-opener. The league had changed so much from when I played in it.
I spent four seasons with UCC in the AIL before joining Cork Con. But, by then, I was in the Munster and Ireland set-ups and I think I only played two games for Con and that was when I was coming back from injury.
But I had a few great seasons with UCC and a lot of my development took place in the AIL. Shannon were the top team then, but, within a few seasons, the league was in decline.
Yet I have to admit I was taken aback last year, particularly by the lack of support at matches. It really was only the diehard fans – and that's the way it was up and down the country.
I found it somewahtsad. We were playing in the top flight, but there were very few supporters at the matches and it is hard to see it changing this year.
Everything now is geared around the provinces and the 'A' teams are now being used rather than the league to develop players.
I believe that the provincial coaches undervalue the league and the fact that we have foreign coaches in charge of each of the four provinces doesn't help either.
I reckon if there was a greater buy-in from the provincial coaches that we would have a better league, but I think they turn their noses up at the standard in it.
I think that maybe they don't trust it.
It was different when I started out. I more or less went straight from school into the AIL with UCC.
The age profile of the players could be anything from 20 to 35, you could have seasoned old props there who would go on forever.
As a college team we were young and a lot of times teams went out to kick us off the park. But if you could survive that, you were hardened for the next test ahead.
You didn't know who you would come up against either. It might be a club player towards the end of his career or it could be a current international.
I remember us playing Ballynahinch and I found myself up against Andy Ward.
He was on the Irish team at the time and I thought it was a great opportunity for a young fella like myself to pit myself against someone like that.
You immediately got a fair idea of whether you were going places and you could get a great boost from that, or you could quickly find out how much more you had to do to consider reaching that level.
It was the same for supporters. One Saturday they could be watching someone play for Ireland and the next Saturday they could go watch their local team and the same guy was playing for his club.
Inevitably, things change, but it is clear something needs to be done urgently if we are to restore the status of the league.
I don't know what the appetite is in the IRFU for creating an elite division and having the others play regional competitions, but it should be considered.
There could still be a process where a team could access it from the regional competitions if they felt they had the resources and the structures in place.
But I see it from my own club Cashel.
It is brilliant to see them in the All-Ireland League, but they are going to be travelling up and down the country all season and the number of resources that will consume are unreal.
A huge amount of fundraising will have to take place to try to cover an overnight stay and long journeys. It is placing a huge burden on clubs and I don't think clubs can afford it.
Maybe the time is right to consider one top division and look for a much bigger buy-in from the provincial coaches and the provinces and develop it from there.
There is a chicken and egg situation with regard to getting supporters back in big numbers, but, at the moment, all of the resources are spread too thin and the club game in general is suffering.
I know every club is looking forward to the league kicking off this weekend – and why wouldn't they – but in nearly every one of those clubs, there will be a big, long, hard slog all season to meet all the demands and maybe we should be actively looking at a better way to serve the club game.