Club players in Ireland got the news that they have been waiting for last week after the IRFU announced that the domestic season can kick off in September. The news was welcomed by players and coaches alike as teams get down to the nitty-gritty of pre-season training. In a new move, the season will be split into two stages with the Energia Community Series beginning on September 26th, with the Energia All-Ireland Leagues kicking off at the later than usual time of January 9th, 2021.
Commenting on the announcement Greg Barrett, Chair of the IRFU Rugby Committee said “The IRFU reached out to all clubs in May to gather feedback on the structure for the 2020/2021 season. This stakeholder engagement was fundamental to the direction of travel for central and provincial staff as well as the decision making of provincial and IRFU Rugby committees. Our Return to Rugby Guidelines for Clubs mapped out a ‘safety first’ approach for clubs and we continue to be guided by this and the work of IRFU Medical Director Rod McLoughlin as we build towards a resumption of competitive rugby in 2020. While there are many factors that helped shape this season outline, you will see that player welfare and COVID-19 risk mitigation are by far the biggest consideration.”
Barrett also hopes that Stage 1 of the season will help clubs bounce back since they have been forced to close their facilities back in March. “We are also hopeful that a focus on keeping rugby at a localised level in the first stage of the season brings with it an opportunity for clubs to reenergise their membership. As club rugby people, we all love to see meaningful games against our neighbours and provincial challengers for silverware. This can serve to kickstart cashflow once again in clubs after a very difficult period. We remain grateful to our partners in Energia who have stood by us throughout this process. It is only fitting that we work towards an Energia All-Ireland League in the second half of the season and a fully-fledged All-Ireland competition thereafter.”
Despite the Community Leagues being regionalised, the IRFU will still take charge meaning all fixtures and regulations will be issued from Dublin and not the respective branches. The makeup of the league will, however, be very familiar to the competing teams. Ulster, Munster, and Leinster will see their Senior sides split into two conferences with Connacht’s six teams going head to head in one single conference and this will see a double round of fixtures played on a home and away basis. These conferences will finish up on 12th December with the 19th December earmarked as a reserve date if required. The prize for all conference winners and runners-up in conference one is a place in the All-Ireland Bateman Cup which will be played during stage two of the season.
This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the All-Ireland League. This season’s competition will kick off on 9th January and Gary Ryan of sponsors Energia was keen to express their continued association with the domestic game. “We are once again proud to be the power behind the Energia All-Ireland League and its constituent cup competitions for the 2020/21 season. Energia supports any competition which places player welfare at the heart of its format and we are fully behind the IRFU in their need to put a modified season in place as we all look forward to a return to rugby. We welcome the inclusion of the Energia Community Series in Stage 1 of the season and understand the need for clubs to focus on their role in the community in the continued reopening of our society. When the time comes, we also eagerly await the return of the Energia All-Ireland league in January 2021 and the 30th anniversary of the competition.”
This season competition will continue with five divisions and these will be the same as last year. The IRFU also announced that there will be no promotion or relegation in this season competition. The knock-on effect from this also means that there will be no Round Robin competition for the four winning Provincial Qualifying League champions.
The end result sees teams having at least 19 games when just a few weeks ago nobody was sure what was going to take place and with provincial Senior Cup ties to be played as well as new competitions in the All-Ireland Bateman Plate and Shield which will run alongside the Bateman Cup, our senior club sides can expect to be as busy as ever once the season kicks off.