AIB All-Ireland League clicks into action this weekend

THE Munster dominated, AIB sponsored All-Ireland League clicks into action for its 18th successive season this week-end.


THE Munster dominated, AIB sponsored All-Ireland League clicks into action for its 18th successive season this week-end.

If its main purpose was to produce players of high quality for the provincial squads and ultimately the Irish international side it has failed dismally.

That may not have been totally the league's fault with the blinkered attitude of Ireland's international set-up taking much of the blame for turning a blind eye to promising young club talent.

The public has turned its back on the AIL over the past decade. Attendances of 10,000 in 1990/91 (Garryowen v Cork Con, Dooradoyle), 18,000 in 1991/92 (Shannon v Garryowen, Thomond Park) and 20,000 in 1993 (Young Munster v St Mary's College, Dublin) have plumetted to today's average of 300 at home games. The Heineken Cup and the Magners League have combined to squeeze the club game down to third place in Ireland's rugby playing order of preference and the provincial schools junior and senior finals are now attracting more paying customers than the combined AIL attendances in Limerick or Dublin on any Saturday during the season.

Even the national Sunday sports pages have closed the door on AIL coverage, allowing just a nib-full of information to filter through so as to keep the public informed of the score, the scorers and sometimes the teams.

Turn the clock back to the mid-1990s. Fans shoulder to shoulder packed into Thomond Park for classic and memorable AIL meetings of Shannon and St Mary's College and unforgettable local derbies, sell-out pre-match functions and hardly room in the press box to move your biro with comfort. Post match scenes resembled a scrum in the dark corridors outside the respective dressingrooms as national hacks, major media names in the international world of rugby, fought for comments. Tape recorders poked through the throng as the eager reporters hung on every word from the respective coaches.

How times have changed, although for some of us the show just goes on.

The attendance at Coonagh last Saturday for the Munster Senior Cup game between Shannon and Garryowen was encouraging. If over 300 people were prepared to make their way to this out of town venue for a provincial quarter-final you would expect twice that number at least to go along to the re-match in two weeks time in Dooradoyle in the AIL.

In theory the AIL should be providing a steady supply of quality players to the Irish set-up. Since Eddie O'Sullivan took over the reins that has not happened and it will be interesting to see if there is now a more open policy in the wake of the World Cup disaster. Now is the time for the Irish management to throw caution to the wind and give youth its fling.

Keith Earls, for instance, is as prepared now for his first senior Irish cap as he will ever be. He has proved himself with the Ireland under 20s and he has the ability to slot into the highest level with ease. It was obvious to everybody at Coonagh last Saturday that he has exceptional talent. His defence is good, he has good pace and is an overall natural footballer. At every grade that he has played he has stood out and if that talent is not now nurtured at the highest level it will be Ireland's loss. The time is also ripe for Tony Buckley's long-term elevation to the green jersey and I will make a further prediction: Mark Melbourne of Garryowen will also rise to Irish cap level within the next two seasons.

If Irish rugby learned one hard lesson this autumn it is that you cannot rely on just 15 quality players in the modern game. Since 1999/2000 Ireland have been predictable. The same squad of players has been wheeled out on almost every international occasion and it is time for Eddie O'Sullivan to organise a few farewell parties. To some degree, loyalty has been the coach's downfall and now mother hen should let his flock fly the nest.

For all the hype that has surrounded this Irish side over the past seven seasons the rewards have been moderate. We have yet to beat New Zealand, we have beaten South Africa on only two occasions and have had rare and insignificant victories over Australia. Apart from the win over France in Stade de France in 2000, Ireland have only one other victory over the host country on French soil in 47 years. We have to go back 60 years for our last grand slam.

Our main boast is that we have won three Triple Crowns in the last four years and seven since the late 1940s as well as two 5/6 Nations Championships in 60 years.

The reality is that in the heavyweight bouts we are punching above our weight.

The AIL has failed to produce quality out-halves, tight head props and outstanding young full-backs. Munster's noble policy of trying to 'blood' young players into their squad has stalled and you only have to look at the number of imports currently on their books to support that claim. This season you have Jim Williams (Australia) and Shaun Payne (South Africa) as forwards coach and team manager/player respectively as well as Paul Warwick (Australia), Rua Tipoki (New Zealand), Liefi Mafi (New Zealand), Doug Howlett (New Zealand), Jeremy Manning (New Zealand with Irish qualification), Jake Paringatai (New Zealand) and Federico Pucciariello (Argentina) all on the books.

Add in rugby league convert Brian Carney and the number of places not filled by AIL players and mentors rises to ten. That can hardly be regarded as progress from within.

WHILE we continue to bemoan the lack of interest in the senior club game, down at the other end of the scale the interest is almost non-existent. Almost every boy who attends a rugby playing school wants to wear the jersey in a Munster schools cup game. Thankfully, the Munster Schools Committee have retained that right by continuing the open draw system at Junior Cup level this season.

Last week I went along to see St Nessan's Community School take on St Mary's of Newport in the preliminary round of the competition. Apart from two mentors from each side and the referee I was the only adult present apart from a pair of stragglers who arrived close to the final whistle. In fact, the only other people at the match apart from the 30 who started were the forementioned and the replacements.

Is it a sign of the times we live in that not single parent thought it worthwhile to go along and see their son take part in a schools competition that has spawned some of the best players this country has ever seen? No doubt many of the same parents will leave no stone unturned to ensure that they get Heineken Cup tickets for the three pool games at Thomond Park this season.


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