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Irish Rugby – Future of the All Ireland League

While our national team and provinces continue to perform on the biggest stages, the All Ireland League has endured an opposite turn of fortune. Michael McCarthy discusses the decline of the AIL.

Spring has sprung and once again all appears to be rosy in the garden of Irish rugby. We are Six Nations Champions and have three provinces in the last eight of the Heineken Cup.  The impending announcement of a new European club competition format promises to end the long running uncertainty about the professional game at provincial level on Celtic shores. The proposed new tournament will apparently share TV rights between rival sports networks BT and Sky and will also do away with the eponymous sponsorship deal Heineken held with the previous tournament. Instead, the new competition will reportedly follow a Champions League style sponsorship format with a handful of main sponsors attached. According to ‘sports industry experts’ quoted in the Telegraph this will lead to a dramatic increase in revenue from TV rights, sponsorship and advertising.

If this deal is indeed confirmed, the financial future of the country’s provinces would appear to be secured and they can continue the growth we have seen in the last 15 years. However, while the provinces continue to blossom and enjoy their spot in the sun, hidden away in the back of the Irish rugby garden there is another entity struggling to survive. The growth of the provinces has coincided with the gradual decline of the All Ireland League. This competition was once the pride of Irish rugby, below international level. However, the last decade and a half have seen the AIL withering in the shadows, being choked of any light by the incredible growth of the provinces and the Heineken Cup.

At the end of April 2013 the IRFU released the results of a report into the sustainability of the club game in Ireland. This report summarised the financial position of AIL clubs and the results were damning. Debts of the 121 clubs included in the report totalled €20.5 million by the end of the 2011/12 season. Eleven senior AIL clubs had debts of greater than €500,000. Clearly those figures indicate the AIL in its current form is unsustainable. Under the existing regulations a player can receive payment of up to €4,500 per season, although no club can exceed €64,000 per season in player compensation. Whilst these figures are relatively modest it is clear from the report that the AIL does not generate the revenue to match such spending.

The report also highlighted the problem of player retention from the schools system and estimates that less than 20% of players continue playing rugby on leaving school. It also raised the issue of a developing “mercenary culture” in the AIL whereby some teams are offering financial incentives to players willing to switch allegiances.

The solutions proposed by the sustainability report are to be implemented from the end of the current season. They appear to me to be both short sighted and lacking in creativity. Essentially from September 2014 all payments to players outside of provincial contracts and travel expenses are forbidden. These travel expense payments to players are to be limited to €10,000 per club, per season. Additionally to combat the issue of players switching clubs they propose implementing “a period of non-playing for transferring players other than in exceptional circumstances”. So in summary, clubs are spending too much money on players? Ban spending on players. Players are switching clubs? Ban that too.

Personally, I don’t see either recommendation reviving the ailing AIL. If anything these regulations will drive players away from the sport. As it is, players at AIL level must balance the time and effort that goes into training, playing and travelling to and from games against the enjoyment and small financial benefit they may get for playing. I doubt any AIL players are in it for the money. Yet removing all compensation, other than travel expenses, will surely tip that balance against continuing in the sport.

In August 2013 the IRFU put together a group to review the AIL structure. Part of this review involved consulting with both AIL clubs and players. The report of this review group became available in February 2014. It showed a fear among clubs that removing payments to players will damage the quality of the league. The clubs feel that without payment, players may be less committed to training/playing or may simply move to overseas leagues where payment is permitted.

For semi-professional or amateur teams, travel expenses can be significant, especially when travelling from opposite ends of the country to play. For example Sunday’s Well RFC, a Cork based team in Division 2B have, so far this season, welcomed both Armagh RFC (244 miles), Ards RFC (279 miles) and Instonians RFC (263 miles) to Musgrave park as well as facing trips to both Sligo and Boyne themselves. This kind of travel not only puts a strain on the budget of clubs, it also imposes serious time commitments on the players. For some players the joy of playing and being part of a team will always outweigh the negatives but for those estimated 80% of players who leave rugby after school surely this level of time commitment (for zero compensation) will only drive them away from the sport.

The AIL review report indicated that for large division 1A clubs travel expenses were not a major issue but that as you descended the leagues they became a growing concern, with Division 2 clubs finding them significantly less affordable and often resorting to private car transport instead of a team bus.

In terms of player opinion, there was a split on the issue of whether travel distance affects participation, with 50% agreeing and 50% disagreeing. Although not specified in the report, I would strongly suspect this question is highly dependent on a player’s location. It is not difficult to imagine that, for example, Dublin based players in division 1A may find it less of an issue considering 5 of that league’s 10 clubs are also Dublin based. Whereas a player based in Cork or Ulster may find the long distance travel more off putting.

The success of the provincial rugby system in this country has allowed the national team to punch well above our weight and is the envy of our Celtic cousins. Why not extend this successful provincial set-up to club level? Disband the current nationwide format of the AIL. Instead of the existing four divisions made up of geographically dispersed club sides, why not create four new divisions along provincial lines?  Due to the uneven distribution of existing AIL clubs this division may have to be altered to Munster, Ulster, Dublin and a fourth division made up of the handful of Connacht based clubs as well as the remaining clubs from outside of Dublin. The clubs surveyed by the AIL review group were, in general, in favour of a national format.  These clubs felt the prestige of a national tournament was important to players. However, the report does mention minority support for regionalising the league structure. So why not look for the best of both worlds in a new format? A competition made up of four regionalised leagues would allow for an NFL-style play-off series to determine an All Ireland champion. This format would be a more manageable regional set-up while retaining a national tournament element.

Three of the key problems with AIL rugby outlined in the sustainability report were: over-spending, a mercenary culture of players switching allegiances and the loss of players from schools rugby. I believe a restructured, regionalised competition could alleviate all three problems.

Firstly, a provincial based division structure would greatly reduced travel expenses for clubs. No more expensive 500 mile round trips to play a game. Whilst according to the AIL review group, this would not make a major difference to the Division 1A clubs, it would be a significant boost to the coffers of the lower league clubs.

Secondly I believe it would generate an increase in attention, local sponsorship and attendances for AIL games. They say that familiarity breeds contempt but contempt certainly helps generate sporting rivalry. A Munster derby between Cork Con and Shannon or a local derby between Sundays Well and Dolphin is always going to be more interesting to potential attendees compared to a game against a team from 300 miles away with little or no history between the sides. The minority of clubs in favour of regionalising the AIL, as mentioned by the IRFU review group, specifically mentioned an increased desire for local derbies as one of the reasons for preferring a regional format.

I also feel this new structure would help reduce the mercenary culture mentioned in the report. The sustainability report blames this solely on financial incentives offered by larger clubs. However, surely part of the cause is the divisional gaps between nearby teams. Most rugby players will have at some stage, played underage rugby for their local team. For a player emerging from the schools system faced with the prospect of rejoining his local side or joining another nearby team playing 2-3 divisions higher, the choice often becomes one of head over heart. If all the teams in the area are playing in the same division there is less incentive to switch allegiance and more players would return to, or remain with, the clubs that developed them at underage level.

This feeds into the loss of players from schools rugby too. The sustainability report specifically highlights the loss of “the average player”, the player with no prospect of making it as a full time professional. For this level of player, the existing AIL structure requires a huge amount of commitment, specifically time commitments. Whole weekends are given up for a run of the mill league game when that game requires travelling the length of the country. Reducing the travel reduces the time commitments and may convince players they can in fact fit rugby into their busy lives.

I would agree that the IRFU needs to impose spending restrictions on its clubs. But surely the goal should be to increase the league revenue to bring it in line with spending rather than simply abolishing all spending. There are obvious flaws with the new provincial linked structure I have suggested. For example teams from division 1A would suddenly find themselves playing regularly against teams from much lower divisions. Mismatches and one sided games would certainly be a problem initially. However, if the new structure made it easier for clubs to retain players from their youth set up, rather than see them leave to jump up a division or two then perhaps it would allow the weaker teams gradually improve?  Should the IRFU let the current nationwide league format continue but in a purely amateur form as they plan to do? Will this solve the problems with grass roots rugby in Ireland or is more drastic action needed?

Michael McCarthy, Pundit Arena.

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