Gerry Thornley: Clubs know how they can help boost Irish game

The club game is vital for supplying players to the provinces and must be protected

The Ulster Bank League kicks off again next weekend with a full programme of 25 matches across all five divisions of 10 clubs; that's 450 regular season games before the playoffs. It will sustain and, in many instances, supplement the four provinces as much as ever, but those involved believe it could be doing so much more.

Although there are no clashes with the British & Irish Cup, which the provincial A sides compete in, it remains a drain on the club game which virtually all involved would do away with tomorrow if they had the opportunity to do so.

Ask Paul Cunningham, Old Belvedere's long-serving coach and sometime coach of the Ireland club side, if he could change one thing to improve the club game, and he doesn't pause for too long.

“I would get rid of the B&I Cup. I would make the Ulster Bank League basically a semi-pro league, and I would bring all the academy players, all the development contracted players and any full-time players who are not playing at the weekend for their provinces straight into the clubs; split them evenly across the clubs in a draft-type scenario,” he says.


Front-line clubs

“The money that is saved could then be put into the coaching and the facilities of all the front-line clubs. You could still have promotion and relegation, and not turn it into an elitist competition. The players stay in the top division and then get re-distributed into the top clubs. We could really get more out of the club game and it would benefit the professional game.”

Mark McHugh, a former Connacht and Leinster player now assisting Mike Ruddock as a coach at Lansdowne, agrees.

“I’m not sure of the value of the B&I Cup, and it’s something we struggle with regularly. It impacts on the availability of academy players and pro players. I certainly think the All-Ireland League would be enhanced immeasurably if these guys were released to us on a more regular basis,” he says.

“Ultimately I believe these guys need to be playing rugby. They’re not weight-lifters, they’re not long-distance runners. They need to be playing rugby week in, week out. They should be playing a minimum of 25 to 30 games per season, and they should be games at a decent level and a decent intensity.

“With the odd exception, I don’t believe that the B&I Cup is really helping the development of these guys. I think if we got a really competitive AIL, where you have ex-pros, soon-to-be pros, academy players, pros not picked for their respective provinces, playing on a more regular basis, it would be fantastic.”

“I do appreciate these players are being developed by their provinces with the pro game in mind, but ultimately the amateur game and the club game are what feeds these players from six years of age. And if we let the club game die out because we’re so wrapped up in the pro game, there won’t be a pro game any more.”

Provincial coaches

Although there are no direct clashes with the B&I Cup, there are clashes with provincial A games. Either way the Ulster Bank League has been further denied access to more of its academy or semi-contracted players due to the B&I Cup.

“If you’ve got a professional or semi-professional player and they’ve got a B&I Cup game, they’re not necessarily going to be released to their clubs before or afterwards, and they’re not going to be training with their club anyway. And even if they do come back to the club, to them, sub-consciously, it’s not the biggest deal in the world,” McHugh says.

Furthermore, the provincial coaches and managements will be less inclined to look at a club game when they know players can be corralled into their A squads.

Hence, the degree to which refocusing on the club game away from the provincial A sides, and especially the B&I Cup, could up the quality of the club game can only be imagined. At a stroke, there would also be more likelihood of players of provincial quality opposing each other.

All that being said, Cunningham says: “The standard of rugby [in the Ulster Bank League] is excellent. Really strong. The teams are all trying to play rugby. Supporters get very good value for money for coming to matches. The quality of player now coming through is outstanding and at a younger age. You could argue that the intensity isn’t as it was before but in certain respects the rugby is better. But if it got a lot more support, it could be even better again.”

Significant impact

Recent evidence supports this. In last week’s opening round of Guinness Pro12 games, a host of players who made a significant impact on last season’s Ulster Bank League made their first forays into the provincial ranks.

The most striking example was Joey Carbery, who had a stunning, two-try full competitive debut at outhalf in Leinster's win over Treviso last weekend.

"If you just think of 10, I thought Gearoid Lyons from Young Munster had a stand-out season, and there are plenty of others," Cunningham says.

“The quality and the standard of the league is so good, and if players are given a chance to develop and come through, their ‘pro’ teams will definitely stand them up.”

Nor does the league have to be a stepping stone to just the Irish provinces: 21-year-old Lyons has joined Nottingham in the English Championship.

Academy players

The IRFU have now stopped applying restrictions in the number of fully contracted players with the provinces who can line out for a club side in the Ulster Bank League.

Yet Cunningham maintains none of the front-line provincial players will play for their clubs, barring very exceptional circumstances, and the few who do will be welcomed by team-mates and opponents alike, as it will up standards.

There has been no restriction, per se, over academy players or those on development contracts from playing for their clubs; the problem being that clubs believe these players should be released more than has been the case.

Cunningham, a former hooker with Garryowen, is a Munster man based in Dublin, which makes him far from unique. The haemorrhaging of players from Limerick, Cork and the rest of the province to Dublin or abroad has had a seriously detrimental effect on the Munster's professional team, which has traditionally drawn from the club game more than the other provinces.

Accordingly, Munster clubs won the first nine AIL titles and 17 of the first 20, but since Cork Con's success in 2010, the last six leagues have been claimed by Dublin teams: Old Belvedere, St Mary's, Lansdowne (2013 and 2015) and Clontarf (2014 and last season).

There have though, been signs of a resurgence in the last couple of years. “If you look at last season, three of the top five, Con, Young Munster and Garryowen, were all there, with Con and Young Munster in the semi-finals,” Cunningham says. “But at the same time, if you look through it, you have academy and development players condensed into two or three clubs.”

A worrying geographical imbalance remains in situ this season. The relegation of Ballymena and, on the last day, Galwegians, has left this season's Division 1A with seven teams from Leinster and three from Munster. That is not healthy.

"In certain respects it isn't good for the league," Cunningham says. "As it panned out last season, Ballynahinch and Galwegians went down. If I was a betting man, I'd say two Leinster teams will go down this season, just as a numbers game."

Picking which two is no easier than nominating the playoff contenders and prospective winners. Last season, all bar the top four lost more matches than they won.

Reigning champions

“I actually think it’s wide open,” says Cunningham. “Clontarf are the reigning champions and are obviously going to be very strong, although if Joey Carbery has progressed up, they may have a hole there.

“I think Lansdowne have got some good players. Trinity could surprise people. Even though they’ve lost a lot of players they’ve a great coaching structure there, so I think they’re going to surprise a lot of teams. St Mary’s have recruited extremely well; they’re going to be close.”

Helpfully for the clubs, the league has been split into two halves, with nine games before Christmas, and then a nine-week break before the final nine games.

“That’s perfect,” says Cunningham. “You’ve got guys who have got to go home to their families, have college or work to be done, so give them their time off, let them regroup and then bring them back.”

In some respects, at least, the league has its structures right.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times