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AIL continuing to be a valuable source for O'Connor

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Former St Mary's winger Darragh Fanning in action for Leinster. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Former St Mary's winger Darragh Fanning in action for Leinster. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Darragh Fanning in action for AIL club St Mary's College. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Darragh Fanning in action for AIL club St Mary's College. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

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Former St Mary's winger Darragh Fanning in action for Leinster. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

The All-Ireland League (AIL) has long been the bedrock of Irish rugby and in recent years, we have seen more and more provincial coaches giving the best talents on show an opportunity at a higher level.

Since his arrival in Ireland last summer, Matt O'Connor has been no different - the emergence of St Mary's wing Darragh Fanning is a case in point.

While O'Connor continues to plan without long-term absentees Luke Fitzgerald and Dave Kearney, Fanning has done remarkably well in what is a huge step up.

O'Connor delved back into the AIL this summer as he recruited last season's top try scorer Mick McGrath and academy hooker Bryan Byrne, who both impressed with champions Clontarf.

"Players have been selected off the back of some really good AIL form. The decision was made that they were guys worth looking at in relation to some of the key positions where we've got injuries," O'Connor says.

"They did the pre-season with us and we thought it was worth keeping them for another couple of months just to see how they would cope with the dynamics of the Pro12."

As the AIL contingent in Leinster's squad bid for full-time professional contracts, the Australian coach is in no doubt of the quality that the AIL is producing.

"It's definitely a good reflection of the standard of the AIL," he says. "If we feel that they need game time, we'll release them back to their clubs but if not, they'll be involved with us."

Fanning will be hoping to build on last week's impressive display against Scarlets as he returns to the province that originally gave him his chance. The winger spent the 2010/11 season with Connacht but only managed eight appearances as he struggled with injury. Nevertheless, he is relishing the opportunity to go back to Galway and is eager to prove a point.

"I would love to be involved having been over there a few years ago. I really enjoyed my time there and I still have a lot of friends there who I'd love to play against," he says.

"It would show them that they were wrong to let me go. I was very unlucky with the injury mid-season when I was there. But I can never knock them. They gave me a chance when I was playing AIL rugby when most others wouldn't."

MATURE

At 28, Fanning is mature enough to know that the likes Fitzgerald and Kearney are ahead of him on the pecking order but while they remain out of action, he is determined to make the most of his time in the blue jersey.

"I came in last season so I didn't get a full pre-season but really happy to get a full one this year. I'm feeling really fit, fast and strong so hopefully I can convert that on the pitch," he says.

"I'm learning something new every day. Getting to play with not only some of the best players in Ireland but in the world, I'm just learning all the time. I definitely feel I'm coming to the peak of my game.

"I'm just concentrating on keeping my place in the team. There's some very good players to come back but I have to keep trying to put my hand up for selection each week."

In a age when money dictates so much, there is a certain comfort in knowing that AIL stars like Fanning are still getting their chance to shine at the top level.

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