Influx of players looking for work creating AIL power shift – Mike Ruddock
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.
Although they themselves came close to replicating it in 2006, Shannon's four-in-a-row record remains untouchable. In total, the first 20 years of the AIL were won by Munster-based clubs on all but three occasions.
Enter the power shift. Nowadays, things couldn't be more different in the upper echelon of Ireland's club game. Ballynahinch – the only northern side to play in Division 1A this season beat Buccaneers to stay in the top flight.
For Munster, the situation is a 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 1B.
Young Munster will fly the flag for Limerick, while Cork Con and Dolphin, who themselves narrowly avoided relegation, are Munster's only other representatives.
Just one of the top six teams in the league this year came from outside of 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 campaign, 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.
At the end of the day, it is where academy players – the future hopes of all provinces – ply their trade and catch the eye of coaches.
The reality is that, for the past 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 British and Irish Cup quarter-final between Leinster and Munster back in April featured plenty of club players from both provinces, but a 47-15 demolition job by 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 number coming into Leinster and vying for national squads is bigger – and is also strengthening 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 is still a lot of work 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 sports science develops and schools become more and more professional, they start to develop players in a more professional manner from an early age.
"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 microcopy 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.
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. "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 or 20 games in the All-Ireland League since.
"When I see them in the trial, there'll be 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 the start of another era dominated by clubs from just one province.
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