AIL offers players chance to make step to next level
The Ulster Bank League gets under way this weekend with a firm reminder of its place in the world.
That professionalism has confined the clubs to the margins has never been so evident as, today, four Dublin clubs will kick off their campaign 10 minutes before Leinster begin their first home league game of the season against the Scarlets.
There will only be one winner, with the floating fans gravitating towards the RDS or tuning into Sky Sports, while the four club venues within a 7km radius are likely to be poorly attended.
Life in the shadows is the nature of club rugby these days but there are positives ahead of the campaign with the play-offs making a return and the Aviva Stadium booked for the Division 1A final.
Whether the new ban on payment to players is effective or has an impact remains to be seen, but that the league still has a functioning role in the game remains a fact when one casts a glance at the team-sheets going out to represent the provinces this weekend.
While most of the provincial academy players do their time in the league, it is the late bloomers who are so reliant on it to make their way.
Leinster's Darragh Fanning and Munster's Robin Copeland used their time at St Mary's to gain professional deals, while Clontarf's Mick McGrath is hoping to follow Fanning after securing a short-term deal with Leinster.
The English Championship and French ProD2 are proliferated with AIL wild geese. Edinburgh have recruited McGrath's club-mate Max McFarland, while Ulster have given Lansdowne's Charlie Butterworth an opportunity and Trinity winger Niyi Adeolokun started his second game in succession for Connacht last night.
League-winning 'Tarf coach Andy Wood believes that the league's value comes from the quality game time it affords young players.
"It's in giving academy players, and guys who haven't been involved, a window to play regular rugby; so that they're trained regularly, play regularly and ideally to feed in and out of the Academy if and when required, or onto development contracts in the case of some," he said.
"For me, that's the main relevance of the league, as well as the importance for local communities.
"Clontarf has a real parish mentality and real parish feel, and there's a lot of local players coming through there and playing for the club. It's for those two reasons, promoting regular rugby for club players and players with ambition, particularly in 1A, for players who want to move onwards and upwards."