AIL rugby was in the spotlight last week for a number of reasons, on a weekend where Clontarf were deservedly crowned AIL champions.

If you look through the Clontarf side, there were notable absentees. Alex Soroka passionately accepted his player of the match award in South Africa as Leinster picked up their all-important bonus point win away from home, but things could have been very different had the fixture calendar gone another way. Soroka would have joined his brother, Ivan, in celebrating Clontarf's win at the Aviva Stadium.

Alex Soroka with a Ukrainian flag

It wasn’t just the Ukrainian born flanker that missed out on the victory party back at Castle Avenue. David Hawkshaw and Brian Deeny, although not involved in the Stormers game, were heavily involved with Clontarf throughout the season as well.

The Leinster team was like an 'A’ side with a lot of AIL representation. I don’t mean to insult the deserving professional players, but instead to cast a light on what the AIL has done for the development of them.

I’ve been coaching in the AIL for the last five seasons, and if you go through the Leinster side that took on the Stormers, I’ve come across the vast majority of them at some stage in the league.

Prop Thomas Clarkson, Max O’ Reilly and Rob Russell have all featured for Trinity College this year and Trinity are all the better for it with the stylish brand of rugby that they play. Jack Dunne, who is on the move to Exeter at the beginning of next season, also featured in in both rounds against Cork Constitution this year.

Josh Murphy and Scott Penny have both appeared in the league this season and it wasn’t too long ago that we came up against Ciaran Frawley in the light blue of UCD alongside them.

Cormac Foley has played a lot of games with Lansdowne this season and has been a key part of their success in making the top four, missing out on their playoff game against Terenure due to travelling with Leinster before last weekend.

Adam Byrne in the colours of UCD

Other members of the squad would have played in the league either in the season gone by or the previous two to three years. Adam Byrne and Nick McCarthy lined out for UCD, Vakh Abdaladze with Clontarf and Harry Byrne scored two tries against us on his debut with Lansdowne on the back pitch at the Aviva a few seasons ago

It’s an incredible league that has been taken for granted for a number of years but there’s been increasing interest since rugby has returned in the post pandemic era.

Of course, these players’ ambitions don’t begin and end with AIL rugby and they’ll always move on through the league to bigger and better things, at least that’s the hope of the club that hosts them through their primitive years. However, the club also plays a role at various times in their career when they are out of favour or returning from an injury and need more game time.

Clontarf celebrate their victory

The quality of the league was summed up by the final on show on Sunday in the Aviva stadium. The power and technical ability of these players was even more obvious when I was (unfortunately) watching behind the TV. The top end of the league could genuinely compete with any of the provinces ‘A’ teams and many more of the players have the ability to step up to professional rugby or have done so in the past.

When you look at both the Clontarf and Terenure teams that lined out in Dublin on Sunday, they both had a number of ex-pro’s that unfortunately didn’t continue at the highest level.

I played with Jordan Coghlan for a while at Munster, he was a lynchpin for Terenure at the back of the scrum and his ball carrying ability is still at the top level of the game. Colm de Buitléar enjoyed senior game time with Connacht and Cathal Marsh, who played 25 times for Leinster before a further 19 appearances with Rugby United New York, was out-half for most of the season.

On the victorious side, Matt Darcy who captained that team, had a spell at Munster alongside current teammate Angus Lloyd. Lloyd also played with Connacht before returning to Dublin. Mick Kearney played in the second row for Clontarf, a current professional with Ulster who has 156 league games to his credit in the URC.

The AIL shouldn’t be judged solely by who came through the ranks at one stage or another when they were judged merely on their potential talent. We’re all aware of Joey Carbery's day in the Aviva when he led Clontarf to victory. Shane Daly was part of our Cork Con team when we were last victorious in 2019 and just a year later was capped by Ireland.

It’s not solely about the players that pass through and move on to the professional ranks like we saw in South Africa with Leinster last weekend, there are a number of players that have similar abilities, and they may still go on to play in the professional game, whereas others come back to finish out their careers.

Action from this year's AIL Division 1 final

There was a time when the league was more influential to the professional game when professional games were less frequent. It was the very same as how important the AIL is to the women’s national team at the moment.

Yes, things had to change and will continue to change as the professional game continues to develop, but the club game is still crucial to the development of the professional game and the provincial coaches seem to be more aware of that since the return of the league after the pandemic.

By the way, this wasn’t a team that went over to South Africa and got thrashed. It was a touring Leinster side that picked up two bonus point losses at the hands of internationally laden South African teams away from home. They more than held their own and have now secured top spot and home advantage for the rest of the competition.

The AIL is a fascinating league and should continue to be held in high esteem by Irish rugby supporters.