TRINITY prepared with a nine-day training camp in Penn State University, two hours in the gym every morning and two field sessions each day. Ballymena brought 30odd players for a gruelling weekend at the British Army training camp in Ballykinler, County Antrim. You can only marvel at the commitment towards a competition that continues to feel the squeeze from all sides.
There's no World Cup this year but still the rugby market is saturated. The Heineken Cup starts the weekend after next, while Ireland play three tests in November. Even Celtic League attendance figures are up. Unless you're directly involved, it will have escaped your attention that the All Ireland League splutters back into action next Saturday. As if to emphasise the point, title defenders Shannon must wait until Sunday . . . Thomond Park has a Celtic League booking the day before.
It's tough going. In the circumstances, the least you'd hope would be that the clubs would be supported by their parent body . . . as ye sow, so shall ye reap and all that.
Instead, the administrative arm of the IRFU is viewed with a degree of suspicion.
This is hardly surprising when you consider that the net result of the union's expensive consultative process was to come up with a competition model that was rejected by almost all of the clubs that supposedly had been consulted. The only saving grace of the union's proposal . . . loosely based on a return to provincial leagues . . .
was that it forced the 48 senior clubs to think as one.
The All Ireland Senior Rugby Clubs Association (AISRCA) came up with its own structure for the league, to start next year. They admit the format isn't perfect but insist it's workable - three divisions of 16, divided into conferences of eight, two up, two down and so on. They even got the union to accept it.
There was a hitch, of course. And quite a hitch it was. The union proposed massive cuts in the club game in order to fund the hugely expensive provincial squads:
700 international tickets taken from the clubs for the union's corporate market; a 33 per cent reduction in the Clubs of Ireland scheme, whereby clubs are rewarded financially for having their house in order; a 50 per cent reduction in prize money and travel costs. And as for the reward scheme for any clubs producing contracted players? That seems to have disappeared without any explanation.
The union can argue that its treasurer John Lyons is currently on a road-show of the provincial branches with Philip Browne and Eddie Wigglesworth, power-pointing club delegates with expenditure figures and deficits. This, so the official argument goes, is the proper forum for such matters to be discussed. AISRCA say the branch system is too unwieldy and diverse to be an effective decision-making system. They want to know why the union won't sit down with them face to face.
"It's refreshing to see the union are doing something about the information gap that they've agreed is there, " says association spokesman Hugh Coyle. "It's also a step forward that figures are being made available. But as far as we're concerned, the longsought-for meeting with John Lyons is still required. All we want is an opportunity to share ideas, to suggest alternatives to the drastic cuts proposed. We've looked at the IRFU figures and in many cases they don't add up. All we ask is that they meet with us."
It remains to be seen for how long the association will maintain this polite tone.
Whatever about the more ambitious clubs, the cuts could devastate those already on the brink of ruin. Wanderers, an IRFU stronghold over the years, was one of the original Division One clubs when the AIL began 15 seasons ago. Recent results suggest they will struggle to remain in Division Three by the end of this year. Skerries have been having difficulty fielding a second team.
But the league will plough on as usual. Certain things remain unchanged. Shannon, now coached by Mick Galwey, will surely be there or thereabouts, along with Cork Con, Ballymena, Buccaneers and Clontarf, who have recruited impressively again.
At the other end of the table, Trinity have an excellent chance of survival. Not only has coach Tony Smeeth kept his side together, next year's reconfiguration makes things far less perilous . . . whoever finishes bottom of a 14-team Division One faces a play-off against the third-placed side in Division Two.
Unavoidable draw-backs remain. Having three breaks in the league programme, each lasting nearly a month, does nothing for a competition that desperately needs momentum. Sunday rugby, inevitable in such a cluttered calendar, isn't attractive to players or spectators.
On the positive side, it's expected that AIB will continue its sponsorship of the league. There's also good reason to believe that idle provincial players will be released to their clubs on a more regular basis. Moreover, the newlyappointed directors of the provincial academies promise that their highly-skilled, highly conditioned youngsters will actually play some club rugby this season.
It's also reassuring to note the number of home-grown coaches in charge of Division One sides. Two years ago, 11 out of 16 clubs were prepared by Kiwis, Aussies and South Africans; this season, the majority of teams have Irish coaches, with a sprinkling of ex-internationals . . . Galwey, Jeremy Davidson (Dungannon), Stephen McIvor (Blackrock) and David Corkery (Cork Con).
On the face of it, the reduction in the number of foreign coaches would suggest clubs simply can't afford the sort of salaries they were paying a couple of years ago. That's not to say the money's gone completely from the club game.
Even if it makes no economic sense, many clubs reckon being successful means spending their hard-earned. At least it shows they still care.