Development the key to capital success
Mike Ruddock claims schools sparked AIL power shift to Dublin, writes Cian Tracey
IT might be difficult to believe now but once upon a time it was almost unheard of for a Dublin club to win an All-Ireland League title. Cork Constitution's success in the inaugural competition (1990-91) paved the way for Munster clubs to dominate the league, with St Mary's College and two northern sides (Dungannon and Ballymena) the only ones to buck the trend in the first two decades of the competition.
Although they themselves came close to replicating it in 2006, Shannon's 'four in a row' record remains untouchable. All but three of the first 20 AIL titles were won by Munster clubs.
Enter the power shift.
Nowadays, things couldn't be any different in the upper echelon of Ireland's club game.
Ballynahinch – the only northern side to play in Division 1A this season – face a relegation play-off with Buccaneers. Defeat would mean that Ulster will have no representation in the top flight next season.
For Munster, the situation is only slightly better. Garryowen, who were the only club side in Ireland never to have suffered relegation prior to this season, will join fellow Limerick clubs Shannon and UL Bohemians (who both went down last season) in Division 1B.
Young Munster will fly the flag for Limerick – once the stronghold of Irish club rugby – while Cork Con and Dolphin, who themselves narrowly avoided relegation, are Munster's only other representatives.
Unless Buccaneers can beat 'Hinch in the play-off, Connacht will again be without a club in the top flight.
Just one of the top six teams in the league this year came from outside Dublin, which tells you everything you need to know about where the strength of Ireland's club game lies at the moment and has done for the last three years.
It came down to the wire and to the last play of the game but the pressure was too much for Old Belvedere, which allowed Clontarf to claim their first ever AIL title in the most dramatic of circumstances.
Regardless of how people from the outside view the club game in Ireland, it remains the foundation of provincial success. It is where academy players – the future hopes of all provinces – ply their trade and catch the eye of coaches.
It was fitting that RTE televised Belvo's game with Garryowen on Saturday, and a quick glance at Twitter suggested that many were surprised at just how good the standard was.
The reality is that for the last few seasons, the quality of rugby has been on an upward curve and that has mainly been down to the standards that are being set by Dublin clubs.
The last three AIL titles have now been won by three different teams from the capital.
The recent British & Irish Cup quarter-final between Leinster and Munster featured plenty of club players, and a 47-15 demolition job by reigning champions Leinster shouldn't really have come as a such a shock given the level that they play at with their clubs.
Speaking to Mike Ruddock, the Ireland U-20s and Lansdowne coach, he maintains that the power shift is mainly due to the huge difference in playing numbers in the provinces.
"The numbers coming into Leinster and vying for national squads are bigger as well as the strength of the AIL clubs," he maintains.
"The recession has hit everyone hard but I think particularly, outside of Dublin, there have been a lot of job losses. There have been job losses in Dublin too, but there are still a lot of jobs here and I guess sometimes moving to Dublin for those jobs helps.
"We (Lansdowne) have picked up players from outside of Dublin who have come to study or to work and I think that has helped shift some of the power balance.
"As for younger teams, I think it's just a numbers thing. There are more schools playing rugby in Leinster than elsewhere.
"As sport science develops and schools become more and more professional, they start to develop players in a more professional manner from an early age.
"For example, England and France are always going to be strong at U-20 level because they have so many playing the game in their countries. Leinster is a microcosm of that sort of geography really," he adds.
Ruddock led Lansdowne to their first ever AIL title last season and had his team playing some scintillating rugby at times.
Like this year, that title decider also came down to the wire and a lot of people's reactions were similar: "I never knew Irish club rugby was this exciting".
Ruddock is an ideal person to judge where the club game in Ireland is right now. Coaching one of the top clubs as well as developing the young talent coming through, he has no doubts that it is in a healthy state.
"I think club rugby in the AIL, particularly Division 1A, is very strong," he says with assured confidence.
"Some of the U-20s are getting lots of good exposure around the country. That's fantastic.
"In fact, I've got a trial organised for a lot of players who would have had that exposure, some who haven't, just to finalise our Junior World Cup squad.
"I would've given them a trial at the start of the season and it's great to see their development after playing 10/20 games in the All-Ireland League since.
"When I see them in the trial, I'll see a lot of guys who have really kicked on, and the pecking order could have changed."
There is no question that the standards that have been set in the last few years will benefit Irish rugby in both the short and long term.
It is now up to other clubs around the country to keep up with the Leinster sides. If they don't, we could well be facing another era dominated by clubs from just one province.
Irish Independent Supplement