Clubs the ace in rugby pack
Despite the AIL's many challenges, it's worth the effort, writes Jim Glennon
The final of the Ulster Bank All-Ireland League returned to Lansdowne Road yesterday for the first time since 2008. Its many editions have seen finals played in different venues around the country but now we're back with a fitting finish to the domestic season.
The amateur club game is the heartbeat of Irish rugby and I've been left in little doubt that this sentiment continues to strengthen around the country, with the European professional game becoming a plaything for an excessively wealthy few, increasingly distancing itself from the recreation of choice for so many.
The league has gone through some lean years but it has seen something of a renewal, if not quite a resurgence, of late, driven largely by the presence of the Leinster Academy and the major Dublin clubs availing of the city's employment opportunities to attract players from other parts of the island.
Many still pine for the glory years of the early 1990s when crowds of several thousand were regular features but, sadly, those days won't be seen again. However, the improving standard of rugby has begun to be reflected in gradually increasing attendances.
Division 1A was never less than interesting this season, Lansdowne eventually topping the table and the remainder of the league unbelievably hard-fought right to the end. While most were capable of beating any other team, the champions in each of the last two seasons, Lansdowne and Clontarf, emerged as deserving finalists - Lansdowne are indeed worthy champions.
Efforts have been made in recent times to improve the promotion of the league, but just why players and supporters were hit with a 1.0pm kick-off, apparently down to RTé's scheduling demands, is beyond me - particularly when the mid-afternoon TV slot comprised a double helping of The Simpsons. Admittedly, Munster's trip to Belfast to face Ulster in a crunch Pro12 encounter did kick off at 14.40 over on Sky Sports, but the undermining of the premier event in the club season is an affront to those involved.
The league, and Division 1 in particular, performs an important dual function for the provincial franchises - a platform for aspiring full-time professionals to present themselves for recognition and the opportunity for invaluable game time for provincial 'squaddies' and Academy under-graduates alike. For the majority of clubs, however, the professional game is of little relevance or, dare I say it, interest.
Recent seasons have seen the emergence of something of a two-speed structure where Division 1 teams have begun to function at an entirely different level to their counterparts in Division 2 with a diminishing prospect of the latter bridging the gap.
Competing in the All-Ireland League is a costly undertaking - basic expenses such as travel, insurance, food, accommodation and equipment don't come cheaply, and the additional investment required in terms of coaching and squad-preparation is huge.
In addition, the prohibition on player-payments introduced this season, and sceptically received as little more than a worthy aspiration, has fully lived down to expectations, reportedly ignored by some and circumvented by many throughout the divisions.
Having spent a lifetime involved in the sport at every level, I'm unshakeable in my belief that the local amateur club is the bedrock of all that's good in the game. Yes, there are issues to be resolved and many clubs continue to struggle, but was it ever otherwise, and is that not one of the perennial challenges which continue to draw us all together?
We might even throw the odd glance over at the lads from Sky and BT Sport on the TV in the corner of the bar, if we've nothing better to be doing, and sure aren't we paying them extortionate rates for the privilege anyway?
Anyone there now for the last of the raffle tickets?
Sunday Indo Sport