Trying times for Cork's elite club rugby teams as planned January start for AIL on hold

Trying times for Cork's elite club rugby teams as planned January start for AIL on hold

Highfield full-back Luke Kingston is tackled by Old Wesley's James O'Donovan, during their AIL Division 1B clash at Woodleigh Park last season. Picture: David Keane.

CLUB rugby remains stalled despite the country switching to level 3 restrictions.

It means there are still no games, competitive or friendly, though limited training is permitted.

The planned start of a reduced energia All-Ireland League on January 9 has been shelved with growing doubts over the competition getting off the ground at all.

The Munster Senior Cup semi-finals, scheduled for last weekend, were among the first casualties as the Garryowen-Highfield and Shannon-Young Munster ties didn’t take place.

The last games at senior level came in mid-October with round 3 of the new energia Community Series, effectively provincial leagues, which kicked off at the end of September before Covid’s spread brought an abrupt halt.

Split into two conferences, Munster 1 had Young Munster on top with 14 points followed by Cork Constitution on 12, UCC on eight with Highfield in fifth on six.

But, it was a league bedevilled by late postponements due to Covid outbreaks with teams awarded two points each and a 0-0 score line recorded in those instances.

Highfield, for example, had three draws to their name, an actual 23-23 tie with Garryowen plus two other games which had to be pulled.

In Munster Conference 2 Dolphin, Sundays Well and Midleton filled the bottom three places before play came to a halt.

The play-offs are scheduled for the week prior to the start of the AIL, celebrating its 30th birthday in 2021, but they’ve been put on the back burner and it will probably be February that clubs see a return to action.

Organisers are keen to complete the Community Series before diving into AIL, but the All-Ireland Junior and U20 (Fraser McMullen) Cups have been cancelled for the season.

The move to level 3 did allow training to resume, but on a non-contact basis and it was mostly fitness work during the first week.

Dressingrooms and showers remain off limits presenting obvious difficulties for players at this time of the year.

The general view is that it will take a month’s training and a warm-up game before the AIL swings into action.

Youths, schools, U20s and junior rugby are also affected by restrictions with question marks hanging over popular competitions likes the Munster Schools Senior and Junior Cups, which weren’t concluded either last season.

There was some pre-Christmas cheer for the beleaguered clubs, though, with the news that the IRFU has allocated €4m of the €18m emergency funding it received from Government to help towards losses incurred because of Covid.

The money was drawn from the Sport Ireland Covid-19 Emergency Fund for Sport provided to the Union to address the threat to rugby at all levels, clubs, provinces and national teams.

Club funding is directly linked to verifiable losses submitted by clubs to the governing body in a scheme administered by the IRFU as part of the application process overseen by Sport Ireland.

The country’s 166 clubs were invited to apply for funding and those who were successful are expected to be in a position to access their funding around this time.

The announcement was welcomed by Greg Barrett, chairman of the Union’s Rugby Committee.

“We are extremely grateful to Sport Ireland and the Government for making this emergency funding a reality,” he said.

“We remain fully committed to our domestic game and this support will greatly assist us to move on from 2020 with our clubs still standing. Irish Rugby is still under threat, but tribute must go to our clubs and schools for the resilience and adaptability shown this year.

“The funding will provide hope, strengthen their resolve and offer a surer footing heading into the new year,” Barrett added.

Preventing the spread of Covid remains the key in any return to playing, according to Colin McEntee, the Union’s rugby development director.

“Clubs exist to allow players to play rugby and right now that means doing everything to prevent the spread of the disease,” he said.

“They have demonstrated proven compliance with the public health measures that keep us safe and will continue to do so.

“Clubs understand what they need to do if they are to continue to provide an essential outlet for health and wellbeing in their communities.”

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