Brendan Fanning: 'One final chance for clubs to decide what shape the AIL will take'
This afternoon in Temple Hill, Cork Con will take on Trinity in the semi-final of the All Ireland League. It is unlikely to be thronged for what will be a hard day up front for the students. So you can imagine what Lansdowne Road will look like next Sunday when the winners play Clontarf in the final.
First and foremost that event will be for family, friends and members of the competing clubs. Secondly it's for rugby fans within striking distance of Dublin 4 who might stroll along for a look-see, if the day is nice. Thirdly? Well, there is no thirdly. It's clubland.
When the 10 clubs started the campaign back in October there was any amount of discussion about what shape the league would take next season. A few months previously IRFU performance director David Nucifora had proposed a radical overhaul of the competition, aimed at warming the bed so that the top tier of the AIL might cosy up to the professional game.
Next Wednesday in the Castleknock Hotel the IRFU will facilitate another meeting with the clubs, and it's felt that thereafter the talk will stop. Whatever is put on the table next will be what's on offer, so either clubs will sign up to it or go bog snorkelling. The Nucifora option is long gone, shot down largely by those who feared getting left behind.
In its wake we likely will get pretty much what we have now: five divisions of 10 clubs where the bottom three whinge about travelling the length and breadth of the country, but when it comes down to it vote to retain just that; and a top two where Nucifora's idea of suspending relegation temporarily, in favour of achieving a regional spread, is anathema, and won't happen. At the same time they want closer links to the provinces on stuff like coaching and release of contracted players. Best of luck with that one lads.
For an example of the shambles that is the relationship between the IRFU, the pro game and the top two AIL divisions, consider the gem that was the Cara Cup: the tie-up over March/April between the provinces and the New England Free Jacks, in Boston.
When this was announced you didn't need to be a political analyst to figure that this was Nucifora firing a shot across the bows of the club game, emphasising who was boss, and if they didn't pull their heads in then they would get them slapped. They got slapped.
What we didn't realise at the time was that many in the provincial set-ups considered the exercise such a pain in the ass that they would be drilling down to new depths rather than risk too many of their own players. So not only did this mess up the closing rounds of the AIL, it worked its way down to under 20 level as well.
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Across the four provinces then an unlikely crew was rounded up for the week-long jaunt in New England. This ranged from a few seniors who weren't quick enough to run when the net was cast, to academy, sub-academy and others. It's worth remembering that the sub-academy is even worse than it sounds. It is a twilight zone where players are subjected to a rigorous regime with a view to seeing who has the right stuff. They submit to this excitedly, knowing they won't get a red cent. In the likelihood of it not working out they just put it down to experience. For some it is a useful period in their lives. Regardless, its structure is a sweetheart deal for the provinces.
A chunk of those on the Crackerjack tour - 11 between Munster and Leinster - are ranked below the sub-academy. If they had been on the radar they would have been picked up already, albeit some would have the talent but not the inclination to be picked up at all. Typically these lads would be 19 or 20, and if you offer anyone of that age a week in the States with flights, bed and board, living like a pro and, critically, getting some gear to take home, they'll bite your hand off.
Even some of those paid to make this excursion look useful would acknowledge privately it was a crock. The irony, of course, was that it illustrated perfectly the need for a highly functional top end to the club game: if these lads are deemed good enough to wear the colours of the four proud provinces then it follows that their clubs, and the national competition, are worthy of support.
But watch what happens next season. Currently the plan is for the Celtic Cup - the September/October competition between Ireland's four provincial A sides and Wales' four regional A teams - to be followed by another, separate ding-dong between our own A teams. This one will be run off to coincide with rounds three and four of the Heineken Champions Cup (December), and then rounds five and six (January).
Consider that we are on the cusp of a World Cup season. Human resources will be stretched across the board. So when it comes to filling these A games it is inevitable the provinces will dial up the lads who did a tour of duty in Boston, and ask them to suit up again, closer to home. If somehow the fixture schedule doesn't have direct clashes between AIL and A games then it won't make much difference, for close proximity will be enough to cause collateral damage. Clubs will be told they can't use Joe Bloggs in a league game because he will be resting ahead of, or resting after, a provincial A fixture.
The alternative of course is for the provinces to tell David Nucifora that the level of incest between the A teams is like an episode of Game of Thrones, and that they simply won't have the bodies to fill the beds. That would please the Division 1A clubs, but it would be a temporary respite. The reality is their only chance of getting any respect from the provinces, or head office, was to negotiate on the Nucifora option rather than declare it nuclear.
So next weekend's AIL final could have been the penultimate of its kind, to be replaced in 2020/21 by a more appropriate model. It's still a fine competition, but it's more of the same.
Sunday Indo Sport