| 14.2°C Dublin


Savea's New Zealand example again highlights how AIL is a brutally underused resource

Cian Tracey


Close

Ardie Savea takes to the field for Oriental-Rongotai on Saturday as the Hurricanes flanker used the domestic league game to continue his recovery from injury. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Ardie Savea takes to the field for Oriental-Rongotai on Saturday as the Hurricanes flanker used the domestic league game to continue his recovery from injury. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Getty Images

Ardie Savea takes to the field for Oriental-Rongotai on Saturday as the Hurricanes flanker used the domestic league game to continue his recovery from injury. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Back in March 2013, Munster were facing the prospect of heading into a Heineken Cup quarter-final without their talismanic skipper.

A back injury meant Paul O'Connell hadn't played in the previous five months. Clearly short of game-time, and with such a huge game looming large, O'Connell needed minutes on the pitch.

It didn't take long for word to filter out that O'Connell would play for Young Munster in a bid to improve his match sharpness.

All week, the talk around the streets of Limerick was dominated by one thing and one thing only.

By the time Saturday rolled around, the lengthy queue outside Tom Clifford Park told its own story.

Cork Con coming to Limerick is always a big occasion for the local diehards, but when one of the club's most famous sons togged out in the famous black and amber, the buzz was a throwback to the glory days when the All-Ireland League (AIL) was the only show in town.

Close

Ronan O’Gara of Cork Con and Paul O’Connell of Young Munster getting to grips with each other in 2001 when the AIL was in its heyday. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Ronan O’Gara of Cork Con and Paul O’Connell of Young Munster getting to grips with each other in 2001 when the AIL was in its heyday. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Ronan O’Gara of Cork Con and Paul O’Connell of Young Munster getting to grips with each other in 2001 when the AIL was in its heyday. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Parents brought their kids to Tom Clifford Park that day and explained how rare it was to see someone of O'Connell's stature mixing it with amateur players, while other neutral fans basked in the unavoidable sense of occasion.

Three weeks later, O'Connell put in a masterful man-of-the-match performance as Munster beat a strong Harlequins side in their own back yard to book their place in the last four of Europe.

That day against Con came to mind last weekend when Ardie Savea lined out for his club Oriental Rongotai - only not as much fuss was made of it.

That's because in New Zealand, it is common for the All Blacks to make full use of the domestic game.

In Savea's case, with the Hurricanes on a down weekend from Super Rugby, the outstanding All Blacks flanker needed the game-time in his continued recovery from a serious knee injury picked up at last year's World Cup.

Not every Kiwi is afforded the luxury of being able to see a player of Savea's calibre up close, just as many of those in attendance in Limerick seven years ago, would not have seen O'Connell before.

The point is that top-class internationals playing in domestic leagues focuses the attention on a game that would otherwise go unnoticed by most people.

In Ireland, the AIL continues to be brutally underused.

Nowadays, it can be tricky for clubs to be allowed to use some of their young players, not to mind the big names, who, let's face it, are highly unlikely to follow O'Connell's lead any time soon.

The AIL is facing much bigger problems in the coming months on the back of Covid-19, but there will come a time when a sense of normality resumes.

Local clubs around the country are no different to any of the provinces in that they need crowds through the turnstiles, and while the IRFU's primary focus will be on the professional game, they must also be mindful of the role the domestic scene plays in the overall health of Irish rugby.

St Mary's fans won't be expecting to see Johnny Sexton in Templeville Road any time soon, nor will Young Munster be planning to call upon Keith Earls. But imagine the boost a club would get if the IRFU started to see the AIL in the same useful manner as the All Blacks did for Savea last weekend.

Opposition players wouldn't exactly welcome going up against a behemoth such as Savea, and while there would be safety concerns at some lower levels, the positives surely outweigh the negatives.

Even if it's only for a few training sessions, having world-class players raises the standards of all involved.

No one is naive enough to think that the AIL is ever going to return to a time when packed crowds on a Saturday afternoon were normal, but there is a better way to make use of the huge number of players coming through the provinces.

Some provincial coaches may not be too open to the idea of their players togging against a bunch of amateurs, yet one wonders if holding tackle bags as the 24th man in a match-day PRO14 squad is more beneficial for the player.

As the AIL cries out for attention, if New Zealand - rugby's world leaders - can see the benefits of allowing their key men to play club rugby every now and then, is there a lesson in there for Ireland?

Irish Independent