AIL continues to prove that life exists after academies
Domestic game offers players a second chance
It is not that long ago that the All-Ireland League (AIL) was the lifeblood of rugby in this country and while the role of the domestic game has dramatically changed over the years, its importance nowadays shouldn't be forgotten.
The quality of the academy structures in Ireland are second to none but the reality is, such is the rate at which all four provinces are churning out young talents, not everyone achieves the ultimate goal by securing a professional contract.
We are however beginning to see more and more players move between the provinces as the IRFU attempt to spread the talent pool with the hope of Ireland benefiting further down the line.
This season, there are 77 players enrolled in the four academies - Connacht 17, Leinster 21, Munster 20 and Ulster 19 - but naturally, a raft of young hopefuls have been left disappointed.
The academies are a ruthless business and they have to be, if they are to be successful. Completing a three-year programme doesn't automatically mean that a pro contract will follow and that in itself often sees players slipping through the net.
Such is the competitive nature of the academies, not achieving the end goal can be tough to stomach and that is where the AIL comes in as clubs in England and France regularly monitor players in the domestic league.
Ciaran Ruddock arrived in the Leinster Academy along with his younger brother Rhys back in 2010 and after giving everything to the cause for three years, he wasn't offered a contract.
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"To be honest, towards the end I just put a lot of pressure on myself," Ruddock admits.
"I was motivating myself for the wrong reasons in terms of fear of failure and things like that. I wanted to succeed so much and keep going up to get that contract and play at the highest possible level.
"When you get a bit older and reflect on that, you come out the other side a lot stronger as a person.
"It would have been good to have gone on a little bit further but you learn from any mistakes you make.
"It's very easy to put pressure on yourself and think about things that are outside of your control in terms of being picked, instead of focusing on what you can control like how well you're training."
Having had tunnel-vision for the previous three years, Ruddock didn't know where to turn when he was let go by Leinster. Captaining St Mary's gave him his rugby fix but he soon realised that it was time to reassess his long-term plan.
"At first it was quite difficult because you're not 100pc sure about what you're going to do next," he explains.
"I was very lucky because one of my best friends approached me with the idea of setting up a gym. It was a really good fit."
Ruddock hasn't looked back since but as he admits, he landed on his feet. It doesn't always work out as well for others.
The work that Rugby Players Ireland (formerly IRUPA) are doing means that life after rugby is very much at the forefront of the minds of most experienced professionals and it is an attitude that is also now being adopted by the younger players.
Take Ben Kilkenny for example. This time last year he was preparing for his third year in the Munster Academy until a freak injury scuppered his dream before it ever really began.
The Tipperary native, who is a nephew of Keith Wood, required neck surgery and suddenly as an 21-year-old, he was forced into a sense of realism that no one that young should have to go through.
"Going into the Academy, you're just thinking rugby, rugby, rugby," the former St Munchin's College student maintains.
"But you're not going to be a rugby player when you're 50 years of age. I was more thinking 'I'd like to know that I'll have the use of my arm, my right hand', so I was definitely thinking about it.
"There was no impact. I was just jogging, warming up for training in pre-season last year, and I just got a little bit of an electric shock down my arm.
"I obviously stopped and my trap just started getting really tight. I had to get a few scans, and it turned out I had a bulging disc.
"It was definitely frightening. It made me re-think what I wanted to do. That's why I'd have no regrets really, because you're very lucky if you don't have that many injuries.
"I'd like my body to be comfortable when I'm older rather than just trying to pursue professional rugby when everyone is getting so big and strong."
Kilkenny was released by the Munster Academy this summer after two years. He is currently studying in UL and is due to start a nine-month work placement with Ernest & Young in Limerick.
His dream of playing pro rugby has been parked for now but he knows that lining out with Young Munster in the AIL every week may change his outlook again.
The AIL returns this weekend and for most, it will go under the radar. But for others, it can offer a second chance to achieve a lifelong ambition.