Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ulster Bank League changes - getting there

“Definitely, I’m a first-over-the-line man. In principle, because that shows a lot of consistency throughout the year."
Lansdowne FC coach Mike Ruddock
I can definitely see where coach Ruddock is coming from - first-over-the-line is the fairest way of judging who wins a particular competition.

That's assuming we live in an ideal world, though.  And you don't need me to tell you that the world of professional rugby is one that's far from ideal!

For one thing, the AIL season begins this weekend, earlier than before.  So essentially it will last as long as the Pro12 season, from September to May.

Perhaps if the 18 league rounds were done in quick succession, and also of course without all the players yo-yoing back and forth to the lineup from the provincial clubs, then no, there shouldn't be a need for a top four system.

But the argument for AIL playoffs within the Irish rugby calendar is pretty much the same as that for the Pro12 within the European one.  The showpiece final is necessary to promote the league to a wider audience.

Sure, last season the battle between Belvo and Tarf went down to the wire, but that is never guaranteed.  A Grand Final with the championship on the line is always the best way, unfortunate as that may be who can't be fit for the day or suffer a loss of form.

Of course, I would probably lose my blogging license (what are you laughing at? there could be one you know!) if I was totally happy with the new format.

Another thing they have changed is the structure of the divisions...from next season instead of 2 divs of 10 and 2 of 16, there will be 5 divisions of 10.  So by my calculations, two clubs will miss the cut.  That's not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself.

But I'm not sure if this properly addresses what the AIL needs to be for Irish rugby.

Remember - we're not just talking about squads with provincial academy players filled out by amateurs...many of the latter group would be well able to move up a level talent-wise but choose not to do so because they'd rather (and fair play to them of course) pursue a different day job.  And so the standard especially at top AIL matches would surprise many.

Personally, I feel there should be more clubs in the top tier and, much like places in the Rugby Champions Cup are ring-fenced for Scottish & Italian teams, there should be a way to guarantee top flight rugby for at least two clubs from each province (having two would ensure at least a couple of what could be billed as derby matches).

Just look at Division 1A as it stands.  Garryowen went down at the end of last season and with a cracking 18 wins out of 18 in Division 1B, Terenure came up to replace them.

That makes for 6 clubs in the top flight from Leinster, 3 from Munster and 1 from Ulster.  Corinthians from Galway currently represent the highest-ranked Connacht club and my contention is that it would be better for the Irish game as a whole if they and, say, Galwegians could also have a crack at the national title each season.  Plus of course Belfast Harlequins and/or Malone could join Ballynahinch.

So I would advocate a larger top division of as many as 18 clubs (in one stand alone league or perhaps conferences), with my argument being that meritocracy is only good to a point, particularly in what is the third tier of the Irish game and thus must be tailored to help those above it.

And when I say "above it", I am hoping not to forget those below it as well.  Hopefully the league final at the Aviva Stadium in May will take the opportunity to highlight the game in all four provinces at all levels...perhaps present captains from trophy winners in junior rugby to the crowd at half-time, or something similar.

Another thing I'd do is treat media coverage of top tier games much like provincial  games.  Like team announcements all being made by a certain time, pre-match interviews with head coaches, all that stuff.  I know last minute changes are prevalent at this level, but still it would make for better copy and thus improve the presentation of the league.

The IRFU have improved the "tables" page in the AIL section of their site by putting all the divisions on one page but ideally I'd prefer if there was a completely separate website devoted to the league with all the relevant news, fixtures, tables and stats.

And although I'd understand why RTE would only be interested in sending in the broadcast cameras for the end of season games, I don't see any harm showing one or two matches throughout the season.

[edit - two hours after publishing this post I learn via the IRFU site that they are to live stream AIL games throughout the season.  No, I'm not suggesting it's a reaction to this piece, just a happy coincidence! I'm definitely impressed and will be sure to avail of the service]

Over in England just last weekend they had "Non League Day" where the less fashionable clubs attempted to capitalise on the lack of Premiership action with promos and such.  We have a similar weekend just before the Six Nations at the end of January, but no AIL games are scheduled.

But hey...what do I know?  I'm just a grumpy blogger.  The best way to support club rugby is to play for your local team if you're able, or help and support them if you're not.  Best wishes to all the clubs up and down the country for the new season ahead.  JLP
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