'Scrap B&I Cup and bring in draft system to even out AIL'
Published 16/09/2016 | 02:30
On the opening night of last season's All-Ireland League, Joey Carbery found himself lining out for Clontarf in the Belfield Bowl.
Just 12 months later he will pull the strings for Leinster in Murrayfield.
Carbery's meteoric rise has been hugely impressive and while he is the most recent high-profile graduate from the AIL, the same pathway remains in place as the new season begins this evening.
The standard of the league continues to improve, and the new rule that will entitle clubs to now use four fully contracted players (maximum two forwards) in their match-day squads should see that trend continue.
There are again no restrictions on the number of development and academy players used in match-day squads, which should give supporters a chance to see some of the country's rising stars.
The British & Irish Cup is still a serious bugbear for clubs across the board. A draft system that is akin to the NFL is one suggestion that plenty of coaches would be open to, and that is certainly the viewpoint of Old Belvedere coach Paul Cunningham and Young Munster's new boss Gearoid Prendergast.
"I would get rid of the B&I Cup," Cunningham argues. "I would make the Ulster Bank League basically a semi-pro league and I would bring all the academy players, all the development contracted players and any full-time players who are not playing at the weekend for their provinces straight into the clubs - split them evenly across the clubs in a draft-type scenario."
Prendergast, brother of ex-Munster scrum-half and current Grenoble backs coach Mike, also believes that the B&I Cup is hindering the development of the grassroots game in Ireland.
"The quality is there," he says. "Particularly in the top games in 1A, it's a breeding ground for guys to play rugby at a good level.
"I think that's the way it should be going. That's not to say the academies don't work, of course they do, but I would have serious questions around the B&I Cup and that system. It needs to be looked at."
Galwegians and Ballynahinch's relegation, coupled with the promotion of St Mary's and Trinity, has left the top flight dominated by Leinster. Young Munster, Garryowen and Cork Con will fly the flag for Munster but not having representation from Connacht or Ulster reflects the balance of power.
"It's disappointing not to have a team from Connacht or Ulster in 1A this season so maybe a draft system would help with that dominance," Prendergast suggests.
"Player accessibility is a factor. It goes back to the B&I Cup and development games. When they're not available, it does weaken us.
"The player numbers and resources aren't there compared to Dublin. That's slowly changing. Economically things are improving but there is still an influx of players going to the Dublin teams. That's still the challenge for us. If we could get a spread of players across the board, I think it would be for the better of league."
Defending champions Clontarf start the season as title favourites and their coach Andy Wood has watched enough of his players go on to bigger things to know that opportunities again lie ahead.
"It's great to see a platform from the UBL that allows players to progress on," Wood says. "We're delighted to see players go. It gives guys an eye to the professional game and recognise that it is a platform to go onto other opportunities.
"I don't think the league has the profile it deserves, in terms of the players who have come through it.
"It's an amateur level but if it heads towards semi-pro, the more professional players and academy players playing the league would certainly raise the standard. The more often they are available and playing regularly, the higher the standard is."
A view that is shared throughout the league but as Prendergast puts it "the decision makers have the power".