Wednesday 28 September 2016

Retaining the AIL's status quo shouldn't mean leaving well enough alone

Published 24/04/2016 | 00:00

The IRFU rugby committee met with the chairmen of the provincial committees to discuss the future of the All-Ireland League Stock photo: Getty
The IRFU rugby committee met with the chairmen of the provincial committees to discuss the future of the All-Ireland League Stock photo: Getty

The mutable rain frog is a ­remarkable creature. First discovered in the Ecuadorian Rain Forest as recently as 2006, this little fella can change shape so quickly it has been likened to the All-Ireland League, itself unearthed way back in the rainy season of 1990/91.

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The commonality may lose one of its reference points this week, however. At a Dublin hotel last Thursday night the IRFU rugby committee met with the chairmen of the provincial committees, with the future of the league the main item on their agenda. By the end of it they were leaning heavily towards leaving the limbs as they are.

The next step is for the full union committee to consider the issue, which they will do on Thursday. Given that a good number of faces will have been common to both meetings, it would be a surprise if we got a shift in direction at that point. To reject that advice would be a throwback to the start of the league when, tired of the scramble of musical chairs that always takes place when you throw anything open to the floor, the IRFU led from the front and issued invites to the squabbling clubs to take part. If you didn't respond you weren't in. They responded.

Currently the status quo is five divisions of 10 teams each, making it the largest country-wide 'amateur' league in the home unions. The alternative is two national divisions fed by regional leagues based either on a provincial split, or by the motorway network. The second option would see, over five years, the number of clubs reduced from 50 to 40.

That alternative is something we ­favoured in this parish as it makes a clear case for those who wanted a relevance to the professional game and those who weren't too bothered. What we ignored was the rump of mainly rural clubs who treasure the national element of the competition far above the grind of its long haul. In the bottom tier, Kanturk survived by the skin of their teeth this season and value their senior status highly.

"There's a touch of prestige to be involved in something across the whole country, travelling and playing against these bigger clubs," their chairman Michael Breen says. "We're a rural club in a very strong GAA area so we're ­delighted to be where we are, and we've had to work very hard to retain it. I don't think we'd have held on to the lads we have if we weren't senior and playing in the AIL."

You don't have to be out of town to appreciate the contact with those at the other end of the country. Sunday's Well, City of Derry and Highfield should be getting loyalty cards this season for crossing the border so often. Even Donald Trump is getting nervous. So long as the IRFU are sponsoring the miles, then being part of a country-wide gig is seemingly more attractive than a local affair, and it's something the GAA don't have at that level: a weekly club competition across four provinces.

At the other end of the food chain, there is a different dynamic: providing a pathway to the professional game for those who want to chase it. The link is already there, illustrated by the degree to which the provincial coaches dip into the club game, and not just in World Cup seasons when their resources are stretched.

So legislating against that relationship with dumb-ass diktats like the ­Player Points System, which would require the Stasi to police, makes the IRFU look like an organisation driven by personal agenda rather than the greater good.

On Thursday, the union committee will likely decide to plough on with the creature as currently formed. This is fine for those who treasure their national status. Yet it doesn't mean the IRFU should leave well enough alone. Certainly leave the door open for teams to come from Kanturk to the top if that's their dream. But allow those currently in Division 1A to get on with their rugby without being dragged into the past. The future may not be to follow the mutable rain frog, but let's at least not stay stuck in the mud.

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