Home Rugby The Numbers Game for Limerick’s AIL Clubs
Image courtesy of Kevin Hegarty.

The Numbers Game for Limerick’s AIL Clubs

Raffale Rocca speaks to former Munster scrum half Mike Prendergast on the worrying struggles of Limerick’s AIL clubs.


 

2008 marked Ireland’s decent into recession. It also marked the last time a Limerick club won the All Ireland League (AIL). Shannon were crowned the 08/09 champions after a pulsating tie with Clontarf at Thomond Park.

It was Shannon’s ninth title and the thirteenth time that a Limerick team emerged victorious in 23 seasons.

In the years of economic prosperity between the 2001/2002 and 2008/2009 seasons, Limerick teams won six of eight titles and at one point; there were four Limerick clubs in the top tier.

Since the economic collapse Limerick clubs have struggled. Senior clubs have been drawing from an ever-decreasing player pool as young graduates and older club players have emigrated or moved to Dublin to find work.

Former Munster scrum half Mike Prendergast has experienced the AIL as both a player and a director of rugby and thinks that is has become very difficult for clubs to retain players.

“I know that my old club Young Munster haven’t struggled as much because they are the only Limerick Club in 1A which makes a bit easier to attract young players out of academies. For the other clubs in general, the work just isn’t there {to keep players around},” Prendergast added.

Prendergast juggled a player / director of rugby role with the black and amber for four seasons, joining in 2009 and claimed that when he first joined the recession had not really set in.

“The last two years I found it difficult. I found myself more in a managerial role than a coaching role running after guys and trying to get them out training, “ Prendergast said.

In better times, Limerick’s clubs were able to help find work for graduates and other players so that they could stay and play in the city. As the recession hit, this was not longer viable and the drain of Limerick’s talent pool began.

Figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) also bear out Limerick Clubs difficulties. According to the 2011 census, Limerick’s male population stands and approximately 95,000 and supports eight senior clubs, Cork’s at 257,000 supports five senior clubs and Dublin’s at 620,000 supports 14.

There are 11,875 men for every senior club in Limerick, 51,000 for every senior club in Cork and 44,000 for every senior club in Dublin. From a sheer numbers point of view, Limerick clubs face an uphill battle. Throw in an economic meltdown and you get what we have today.

Responding to whether there are too many senior clubs in Limerick, Prendergast said: “potentially in Limerick yes. We are getting a double whammy here in that we have a huge amount of senior clubs and we are the one city in the country that is probably losing the most amount of people from 21 to 25.”

According to Prendergast the age profile of Limerick’s AIL teams are getting younger with most of the squads literally coming out of the under-20 set up meaning that there are less older experienced players in the squads.

“Overall we are losing numbers, that’s the biggest problem in Limerick. We have a lot of senior clubs, probably too many and we are the one city that there isn’t work around so a lot of players are leaving for foreign fields, to Australia and to Dublin as well,” added Prendergast.

Prendergast’s thoughts are borne out in the fact that there are six Dublin clubs in the top division.

With the success of the provincial sides and all that goes with the professional game, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) face a huge challenge to maintain the relevance of the All Ireland League.

An idea put forward by Prendergast is an elite top division of 10 teams with professional coaches and administrators and financially backed by the IRFU. The remaining clubs would be structured into regional conferences with the opportunity to gain promotion to the elite top ten.

“I think it is a massive thing to get a club run by full time professionals. If you have a professional coach at a club, he is able to put in the right structures and systems and he has got the time to do it.

“Time is the big thing; he can work with the seconds, the Under-20’s and thirds. He can make the phone calls to get the guys out on a Saturday and a Sunday,” said Prendergast.

Despite travel expenses being partly subsidised by the IRFU, the financial drain of travelling to away fixtures places huge pressure on the clubs’ coffers.

“I have heard of cases with five guys packed into a car leaving Limerick at six in the morning to travel to the north to play a game at 2:30. That isn’t right, you can’t prepare for a game like that,” Prendergast added.

This claim was backed up by an AIL review published by the IRFU earlier this year which stated: “there was an increased occurrence among division two clubs using private cars for travel to matches.”

While Prendergast’s views are pragmatic, they are not shared by all of the clubs. In the same review, division one clubs were “broadly” satisfied with the current structures while the majority of division two clubs were not in favour of regionalisation.

The minority of clubs that agreed with regionalisation did so on the grounds of reducing travel costs and increasing the number of local derbies for revenue generation.

The only caveat was that any regional structure would allow a pathway to progress to a higher division. The fact that division one clubs are in favour of the status quo is no surprise, as they would have the most to lose under any restructuring initiatives.

As well as a top 10 Super-league, Prendergast also addressed the release of provincial players back to their clubs.

“I think guys who are not playing with their provinces at the weekend should be playing, I think every academy player should be playing bar being injured or carrying a knock.

“That means more players back in the (club) system which will have a knock on effect on seconds and under-20’s which can only be good for the game as a whole,” Prendergast said.

Having better quality players back with their clubs would no doubt help boost the profile of the league, improve the spectacle and hopefully draw bigger attendances.

Whatever measures the IRFU decide to adopt must address the financial realities of the club game. It simply cannot ignore the club game in favour of the incubated environment of the academy system.

Players like O’Connell, Hayes, Horan, Foley et al were battle hardened from their AIL experiences and they didn’t turn out too bad.

You can hear the interview here:

Raffaele Rocca, Pundit Arena.

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