Friday 27 April 2018

Taking stock at 21

So, happy 21st birthday to the AIL League.

Almost strangled at birth, the AIL's infancy was a riotous cacophony of noise and colour throughout the land.

But now, as it comes of age, it is friendless, without sponsors, crowds or real interest to all but a handful of devotees.

Ireland, even though its century-old provincial leagues ranked as the oldest in Christendom, were the last of the home nations to start a league. The clubs (particularly Leinster's) -- and not the IRFU -- had delayed the league's inception since it was first mooted in the mid-80s.

Despite the collective tardiness, the competition was an instant hit, smashing attendance records and wrecking pre-conceived ideas as to where the strength of Irish rugby lay.

Also propounded as a bridge to the international game, it proved nothing of the sort, with the tribal fare predicated on winning at all costs. Style rarely counted, but it enthralled, nonetheless.

"It's just an extension of the Munster Senior Cup and now the whole country knows about it," said one supporter at the time, presaging Garryowen's storming of the Wanderers' citadel and the province's domination of the competition.

Malone's £70,000 sponsorship over three years -- they chartered a jet at £4,000 expense to fly to Shannon for their opening game -- indicated the abundant riches that would swarm the game.

Lansdowne Road was overrun -- though not always. Ballymena's Philip Rainey blasted IRFU authorities for preventing some league games from being staged at HQ -- especially when soccer games were being played there.

Professionalism was on the way; these were the days of Will Carling's assault on the "old farts" and rules regarding player endorsements were relaxed as the first league campaign drew to a thrilling climax.

The thin end of the wedge? Little did we know.

The influx of overseas players and development of local talent left the clubs in no doubt that they would form the vanguard in entering the nascent European Cup when professionalism struck home for real in 1995.

Instead, the provincial system would prove the vessel for Ireland's uncertain dip into the shark-infested waters of professionalism; ironically, that would itself prove to be the effective death knell for the clubs and the league in the wider sporting landscape.

The clubs still remain the bedrock of the game, remain embedded within their communities. But the days when five-figure attendances would witness matches and board trains and buses for trips to Dublin, Limerick and beyond are sadly no more.

Lest we forget, though, without the All-Ireland League, the recent history of Irish rugby would have been so different.

Here, we speak to some of those involved in its glory days.

Conor O'Shea (Lansdowne)

"What stands out, retrospectively, is that it was bigger than the inter-provincials. Everyone was talking about the Leinster clubs, but the Munster clubs simply wiped the boards. The Ulster clubs were dominated as well.

"The passion was just so much more fervent in Munster, they embraced it and turned people's perceptions on their heads. Wanderers were the (Leinster) league and cup holders, the favourites. History taught us differently.

"One of the great things about Irish rugby is the club culture -- and you hope that's never lost -- is the identity people have with their clubs. Of course it's diluted now, but it's important for players to remain grounded and linked to their clubs.

"Like the GAA, the clubs are part of the parish and you never want to lose that. A lot of the young guys who are exposed to adulation now should be able to remember where they came from."

Alan Lewis (IRFU referee)

"I remember a game in Tom Clifford Park, Young Munster against Greystones, and all these fellahs were telling me: 'Ah, this will be the game that defines you.' But after 40 minutes, I was wondering what all the fuss was about.

"Then about 10 minutes into the second half, a punch was thrown by one of their fellahs and suddenly all 16 (forwards) were in.

"I went over to my touch judge, who had only arrived 15 minutes before the match after dealing with Yanks all week on business.

"He was rather loose, on his arrival on the scene. He didn't have a clue, so I had to do a bit of bingo and pick a number from each side. I took one fellah from Munsters and Tom Morley from Greystones. They just burst out laughing and said: 'Sure he wouldn't hit his granny.'

"To be refereeing in a cauldron like that was invaluable in terms of my career."

Noel Mannion

(Lansdowne, ex-Corinthians)

"That was the middle of my international years. I remember playing Ballymena and Brian Robinson took my spot in the Irish squad after Ciaran Fitzgerald watched our game.

"The end of the trials came about then, the league took over in the selectors' eyes.

"I spent the next couple of years hanging around on the bench.

"It was our first taste of the professional game, really, because everyone knew it was heading in that direction. You could see it at that time.

"I suppose it was the start of the Leinster versus Munster thing, in a perverse kind of way. You had the Dublin clubs versus the Cork and Limerick clubs and that was the genesis.

"We lost to all the Munster teams and it was a wake-up call for us. They wanted to come up to HQ and show they were the best province.

"We'd great craic with Buccaneers in the West in the late 90s after that as well, before the whole thing petered out."

Derek McAleese (Ballymena)

"There was a huge buzz in Ballymena because we'd been dying to have a real go at the southern clubs rather than just in friendlies. We'd a good team and we were keen to test ourselves.

"And then we started with a local derby! But I remember the Limerick clubs used to bring huge crowds up, two or three train loads, when we'd normally have only 1,000 hardy regulars.

"It was an exciting time and I think what's really disappointing nowadays is that none of the Ulster players line out for the clubs any more. It seems like if you haven't gone into an Academy at 18, you're not going to make it."

Maurice Field (Malone)

"You had players playing club rugby one week and then the next week it was international fare.

It was an entirely different era, playing a match on a Saturday then up to a squad session on a Sunday.

"You had to put in performances week in, week out if you wanted to play for your country, where before it was very inconsistent in terms of how players were selected.

"When the league started, a lot of well-intentioned individuals started to throw money at teams, for the best possible reasons.

"They wanted their clubs to do well. But a by-product of that was the squeezing out of younger players.

"It became money, money, money and a lot of the ethos in some of the clubs weren't viable. It's gone full circle now and the days of flying are well over.

"We got the airport bus to Dublin and €14 flights to Dublin a couple of years back with Harlequins. A far cry from £4,000!"

Willie Duggan (Garryowen)

"Everyone remembers that first game when we came up to Dublin and beat Wanderers. It was a shock result, but it was still pretty tight.

"I think Wanderers got the biggest shock of all when their bar was drunk dry -- there were reams of supporters up from Limerick and they cleared the place of porter!

"There'd never been a competitive match between a Leinster and Munster club since the '20s.

"I played for Wanderers before and although the gap has closed between Leinster and Munster, there was a bit of a gap between them at that stage.

"The crowds were fantastic, some of the bus and train journeys were legendary.

"And then it just disappeared almost overnight, which was sad really. But then there were too many clubs involved for it to ever maintain a competitive level for a number of years."

Donal Lenihan (Cork Con)

"I was coming to the end and there had been talk of an All-Ireland competition for years, so for it to finally arrive was good timing for those of us coming towards the latter end of our careers.

"Before, I'd remember going to squad sessions on a Sunday having lost to Garryowen or Shannon the previous day and fellahs would be saying to me: 'how did you lose to that lot'? But they soon found out why.

"It just caught the public imagination immediately. We were getting GAA fans who wouldn't be seen dead at a Munster Cup match.

"The fact it was All-Ireland helped, you were representing your city, your county, your province.

"I only had the first two seasons, but thankfully we won the title in the first year. Nobody knew who the best team in Ireland were before that."

Irish Independent

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