Sport Rugby

Monday 23 April 2018

AIB withdrawal forces league to put its affairs in order

Sponsors will be slow to back an AIL with an identity crisis, writes Brendan Fanning

I f you're in the vicinity of Dooradoyle this afternoon, you might want to drop in and see Garryowen chase vital points to bank in their survival account. Dolphin are looking for them as well, but with a view to building an extension on their season.

What both have in common is that they don't know exactly what they're fighting for. The league is under review, which is a bit like that tailend line on radio ads which tells you that share values can go down as well as up.

A review wouldn't be worth its name if some of the natives weren't calling for disbandment of the national dimension altogether in favour of going exclusively local.

What makes this more interesting than usual however is the announcement last week that AIB are ending their 13-year relationship with the All-Ireland League.

Clearly they were getting something out of it or they wouldn't have hung in for so long, but there were ongoing issues. First, it never quite caught on as the AIB League in the way that for example the Premiership across the water moved seamlessly from Zurich to Guinness. Maybe it was the similarity in names -- AIL and AIB -- but even now your average player and supporter refers to it by the old name.

Secondly, you were never too sure what the competition would look like for any length of time. Reviews were never far away because from Malin to Mizen there were and are conflicting views on what structure the national competition should take. Or indeed if it should have a national dimension at all.

In the circumstances, it was remarkable that AIB stayed as long as they did. Clearly they had decided on a strategy of wedding themselves to club sport and got on with it for better or worse. And once the heat went out of the club game when the pros took over in 1995, it was mostly worse.

We understand, however, that they are considering picking up another strand of the amateur game in Ireland so it's not like they've gone away altogether. But the estimated €500k they were loading to the IRFU account every season (where did all that money go?) will be a fraction of what it was, if it exists at all.

And a replacement? Well, that's where the review comes in. Ostensibly, Garryowen's battle today is about staying in Division 1A next season, and indeed the plan is for the current structure of Divisions 1A and 1B, with two divisions below them, to continue next season.

The review process will be done at the end of this term and in September a decision will be taken on what the structure will look like in 2011/12. At least that's the plan. In the meantime, however, it makes for hard work for the IRFU marketing department.

You'd imagine the first presentation to potential new clients will take place soon enough, for rugby is a sexy sport, whereupon those potential new clients will ask how they are being asked to buy something, the shape of which may change fundamentally before the new tenant has a chance to settle in.

Of course this decision has nothing to do with the marketing people. That will be made on the other side of the house, where democracy comes in the shape of endless consultation with clubs who have very little in common and who think consensus is a town in eastern Europe.

Those who make these decisions will need to examine whether it's realistic to ask anyone for money to sponsor a competition that frequently is shorn of its brightest young players to sit on the bench for their province, or further back in the stand. These are the questions potential sponsors will want answered: what will the competition look like, and who will play in it?

The longevity of the relationship with AIB was unreal. The next tenant will want to see a house in better order.

Sunday Independent

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