“It’s Coming Back” – Peter O’Mahony On The Relationship Between Club & Professional Rugby
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The relationship between the club and the professional game has become a hot topic in the last week or so with All Blacks flanker Ardie Savea turning out for his club Oriental Rongotai in Wellington last weekend.
And now legendary All Black, Dan Carter, is set to turn out for his club side Southbridge this weekend with the Blues on a bye from Super Rugby Aotearoa.
This may be a direct result of the unprecedented times we’re currently living in, with very little rugby being played, but it still begs the question – what’s going on with the relationship between the club and professional game here in Ireland?
It used to be commonplace that we’d see provincial and international stars togging out for their club sides, whether they were coming back from injury or just looking to play some minutes having missed out on provincial selection for the weekend.
But these days it appears the gap between the AIL and the four provinces is huge and Munster and Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahony thinks that’s “unfortunate” but it’s just the way the “game has gone” with so many professional games to be played nowadays.
“I got a great start off in my career with the All Ireland League (AIL). It was a different time and before that, it was different again obviously. You didn’t have as much professional rugby before I played. AIL was essentially semi-pro,” O’Mahony told us.
“I remember going to watch [Cork] Con teams that would have been stacked with eight, nine, ten current internationals, against Shannon teams that probably would have been similar, Garryowen teams too.
“It’s different now with the amount of professional rugby that’s there. When you are not playing PRO14 or European Cup or international rugby there are other games to be played with Munster, there are important fixtures for the [Munster] A team and that sort of thing.
“I think for the All-Ireland League there is a huge amount of merit, the quality is getting better and better. It’s still very high.
“I think if there’s a time to come back from injury and there isn’t a window there for whatever reason. If Munster are on a break, if the Six Nations are on and a player needs a provincial game and there wasn’t one there maybe that would be a slot for them but certainly, it’s harder now for a professional rugby player to get in there.
“If you are fit it would be a rarity that you could go back and play, which is unfortunate as well but that’s just the times and the way the game has gone.”
In New Zealand, professionally, they have five franchises competing in Super Rugby, just one more than Ireland have in the PRO14. But they’ve been hugely successful in creating a ‘semi-pro’ competition in the Mitre 10 cup that does an incredible job of bridging the gap for players, making progression seamless.
If you’re unfamiliar with that competition it’s a competition in New Zealand beneath Super Rugby that plays an integral role in a system that produces endless amounts of talent, year after year.
Players come out of school and into the Mitre 10 Cup before being ‘drafted’ to Super Rugby. They’re thrown straight into the deep end, straight into an elite-level competition. It’s sink or swim kind of stuff. You could be an 18-year-old in New Zealand and find yourself coming up against guys like James Lowe, Julian Savea and Aaron Cruden – who have all played full seasons in the competition in recent years
But perhaps the best part is the fact that the door isn’t automatically closed if it takes a certain player longer than another to get his head above the water.
You’ll regularly see players make the step up to Super Rugby that are 24, 25 or even older. Very rarely a player gets lost in the system. As the old saying goes ‘cream always rises to the top’ – it just takes a little longer for some players.
A complete restructuring of the AIL has been discussed in recent years to bring in more in line with what’s going on in New Zealand but so far, very little progress has been made.
But O’Mahony reckons at the same time, the gap is slowly being closed and progress has been made in recent seasons.
“I think again it’s been hard with the way professional rugby has gone, it had to leave it behind in some ways a little bit,” O’Mahony added.
“But I disagree a little bit, it’s coming back, I think the gap is closing.
“I’m only around the corner from Con and I’ve gone to see them play a few times and they’re certainly way bigger than our Munster pack. Physically they’re big – a big pack, a big backline.
“The guys who would have won the AIL over the last two years you know you’d guys like Shane Daly, Alex McHenry who are all coming into the Munster team this year and last year. Shane probably would have broken in probably last year, Alex is gone to a senior contract.
“You would have guys there who would have been with us and have maybe come back out the other end like Brian Hayes. There would have been a lot of guys in that team who would have been capped for Munster at some stage.
“So I don’t know if I’d agreed that the gap is getting bigger, I think it might be getting a little bit closer.
“And as I said I can comment on the team around the corner and they’re a seriously good team. They’re serious athletes.”
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