There will be a fresh, new dawn in the top flight of the AIB League next season when Division One is split in an eight-team Section A and an eight-team Section B. Appearing on RTE’s ‘Against The Head’ programme, IRFU National Domestic Game Manager Scott Walker discussed the competition changes.
With two rounds of matches left in the regulation phase of this season’s AIB League, almost all of the places in Division One Section A have been filled.
Eight clubs will compete in the new top tier of Division One and so far Garryowen, Blackrock College, Cork Constitution, Dolphin, Shannon, Clontarf and St. Mary’s College have secured their spots in Section A.
The eighth and final place is almost certainly going to UL Bohemians but Old Belvedere, who are currently nine points behind the Limerick club, still have a mathematical chance of making it.
However, it would need a complete collapse from Bohs in their final two games and a brace of bonus point wins for Belvo for the Dublin 4 side to sneak through.
Appearing on RTE’s ‘Against The Head’ programme on Monday, IRFU National Domestic Game Manager Scott Walker was asked about what the Union are hoping to achieve with the changes.
“To allow us to have a very competitive game, there is a requirement to have an uncertainty,” he explained.
“And what we’ve done through basically making modifications to Division One is to have a group A and group B.
“The important thing is that you can still win the league from either group A or group B.
“So there’s an opportunity here for a team which might be in the bottom eight to actually challenge that top team, and we might get similar results to what happened (in the weekend’s AIB Cup final).
“It’s really about making sure the AIB League is actually the most dominant game within the domestic competition.
“It also gives an opportunity obviously for amateur players to show their wares within a competitive system.”
With the likelihood that there will be five Munster clubs competing in the first season of Division One Section A, many have argued that the league’s top tier could turn into a ‘glorified Munster Senior League.’
Walker does not think so and pointed out that looking at the pattern of recent seasons, the division could well be a three or four-province one in a year or two such is the AIB League’s cyclical nature.
“I think we have to remember there’s always been dominant Munster clubs. If we go back six years ago there was actually two clubs from each branch in the top eight.
“If we go back three years ago, there were actually three Ulster clubs in the top eight. So we could’ve be having a debate three years ago about an Ulster-Munster orientation.
“I think it does operate in cycles and in two years’ time we might actually see a completely different orientation of the branches.”
Pressed on whether the new Anglo-Welsh-Irish ‘A’ League will have a detrimental effect on the AIB League, with particular regard to player availability and fixture planning, Walker feels the All-Ireland League model will remain a very attractive product for clubs, players and supporters alike.
“The Union has worked very hard with the branches to ensure we have an integrated programme – with the ‘A’s above and the branch competitions below. So there isn’t a clash at provincial level or the ‘A’ level.
“Players need to make a decision whether they want to play for Ireland and make that step and we can’t deny the players the opportunity to do that.
“At the same time they can continue to play in a very dominant and dynamic domestic game.
“And it’s the uncertainty and unpredictable nature of the domestic game that brings crowds back into clubs and makes community clubs.”
Moreover, you can currently see this season how successful the AIB League is offering players a platform to further their careers, co-existing alongside the new programme of regular provincial ‘A’ games.
A large number of the current Ireland Under-20 squad are playing week in, week out for their respective clubs in the league. For example, team captain Peter O’Mahony, Paddy McAllister and David McGregor all played in last weekend’s AIB Cup decider.
Commenting after the recent Under-20 RBS 6 Nations tournament, Ireland Under-20 coach Allen Clarke said: “The clubs have been fantastic in terms of how they’ve looked after the players and assisted with this campaign.”
Regular AIB League campaigners like Kyle Tonetti, Paul Marshall, Felix Jones and Eoghan Grace played for Ireland at last month’s Rugby World Cup Sevens, while more league regulars like Ian Whitten, Willie Faloon, Ciaran O’Boyle, Paul O’Donohoe, John O’Brien and Dave Nolan have all made their provincial debuts this season.
In addition, Grand Slam winners Gordon D’Arcy and Mick O’Driscoll have both lined out for Lansdowne and Cork Constitution in the league in recent months, showing just how beneficial the competition can be for the broad base of players, from aspiring youngsters to experienced pros to club veterans.
That is not forgetting the excellent addition of the AIB Club International matches, which has showcased players of the quality of Barry Keeshan, Cronan Healy, Simon Shawe and Alan Maher.
Those regular matches against England and Scotland have been a really positive development for the league and there is real hope that next season’s changes to Division One will be another step in the right direction.