Wednesday 13 December 2017

League is not too far away from productive role


It wasn't until the final whistles went in club grounds around the country yesterday that we knew for sure who was going up and who was going down, and who will be playing off for the honour of calling themselves All-Ireland champions. So if a black ball finish is the chief criterion in a league competition, then the current format of our domestic arrangement has been a success. Except that wasn't the sole criterion.

Certainly there was value for money in the final weeks, and the fact that there were no whipping boys in the top flight sustained the interest. And the quality? Well, it was mixed, but there was enough decent rugby in there to make this something worth pursuing aggressively.

Two days ago, the IRFU closed its 'Your Game Your Say' survey about the future shape of domestic rugby, which it had been conducting online. It had been open to everyone from punters to players, coaches and administrators, and it was the first time the Union sought opinions from people across the board in the Irish game.

Inevitably, when you cast your net that wide you'll haul in some dodgy creatures, but in the mix there will be a few winners. And already the option of taking a break over Christmas seems to have won wide approval.

As to the shape of the league itself, the feedback is overwhelmingly in favour of maintaining an All-Ireland dimension. Moreover, the size of the top two divisions would ideally be 10 clubs each, with the bottom club automatically going down and the second last having to play off against the runner-up from the tier below.

The problem with the top divisions of eight teams this season -- it will continue next season as agreed before the next incarnation materialises -- was that the gap between challenging for honours and battling for survival could be wiped out from one week to the next. Take Garryowen for example: reports of their defeat by Blackrock last weekend referred to them missing out on a play-off place. It would have been more relevant to note that their last-minute try earned them a bonus point which made them safe for another season. It was that close.

That has negative implications for the way teams play the game. And if this competition is to have a relevance to the professional tier then there needs to be some latitude for skill development. Remember that maintaining that relevance was at the core of the Union's decision to run with such a streamlined top flight in the first place.

If they are serious about that, however, the structure of the division is only half the issue -- getting the provincial coaches to buy into it is the other half.

In that regard, the departure from Leinster of Michael Cheika won't cause any heartache in Dublin clubs. In his early days on the job, Cheika was an interested observer of league games until he decided they had nothing to offer him, and he tuned out.

We can only hope that his successor, Joe Schmidt, approaches the club game with an open mind. And that the Union mark his card that it is a vehicle for his fringe players to use on a regular basis.

The arrival of the B&I Cup this season did not undermine the league as we feared, and while the fixtures for next season have yet to be made, the IRFU guarantee that they will not intersect with the AIL. This will be harder to honour in the future if the top flight extends to 10 clubs (with an extra four rounds on the calendar) so that leaves us with one more campaign free and clear of those distractions -- a period in which, with support from Schmidt and Munster's Tony McGahan, we should be getting as many provincial players as possible into action.

McGahan already understands the need for exercise. He is on the record from last year about the ground his Academy has to make up, and he won't have missed the statistic from Ireland's Grand Slam-winning U20 side this season where only six of the 26 players used were from Munster. You have to trace back through the system to find the causes of this but certainly you need a robust and well-supported club game for the players who are coming through.

The structure we have now is not far away from being productive. Tweak the numbers and treat it like it matters and we'll have a competition that can serve a purpose.

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