Conveyor belt of talent continues to deliver for Leinster

Academy the engine which drives a production line second to none in European game

When Rory O'Loughlin replaced Rob Kearney early in the second half at Franklin's Gardens last Friday, he joined Adam Byrne and another substitute, Ross Byrne, as the third member of Leinster's backline making their European Champions Cup debut.

Despite the latter being the province’s third- or fourth-choice outhalf, undeterred Leinster would respond to Northampton drawing level by scoring 27 unanswered points in the final 31 minutes.

At one point, two of the trio of tyros combined as Ross Byrne crosskicked for O’Loughlin to take a leaping catch above Ben Foden and dot down Leinster’s third try.

Those two, along with Peader Timmins and Ian Fitzpatrick, will complete their three-year cycles at the end of the season and progress to senior contracts, according to the Leinster academy manager, Peter Smyth.

Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery had already been fast-tracked onto senior contracts, and Cian Kelleher moved to Connacht.

Kelleher's loss was compounded by the enforced retirements of Luke Fitzgerald and Niall Morris, not to mention a long-term injury to Fergus McFadden, yet Adam Byrne and Barry Daly have filled the voids from within by progressing to full-time contracts, Daly having come outside the academy pathway.

During the summer the IRFU appointed four provincial talent coaches, including Trevor Hogan at Leinster, in order to broaden their base.

“We go to every club game that we can, and the door is open,” says Smyth, citing the example of Daly.

“An Irish Under-20 in 2012, he played club rugby, scored 17 tries for UCD last season and is on a full contract with Leinster this season.”

Late develper

The message, for players who don’t make the Leinster academy is “the game is not over”. Another example is Robin Copeland, whom Smyth coached at St Mary’s from 2006 to 2010, and who played for Plymouth, Rotherham and Cardiff before joining Munster.

“Now, more than ever, we’re looking for the late developer. We just don’t have enough rugby players to only look here.”

Besides which, the club game helped initially to foster and then cultivate players from the academy, be it Carbery at Clontarf, Adam Byrne, James Tracey, Luke McGrath et al at UCD and so on.

And then, of course there is the Leinster Schools Senior Cup, with its high profile, its fee-paying schools and investment in high quality facilities and coaching. It is a ready-made conveyor belt.

“Leinster could not fill that hole, with the best will in the world.” Smyth concedes. “The schools are massively important.”

Such are the elite schools’ ever-improving facilities that Belvedere, Terenure and St Michael’s have 4G all-weather pitches in addition to Donnybrook.

On Thursday, Smyth, Hogan and others went to the Gonzaga-St Gerard's match, after which a miked-up Stuart Lancaster hosted a defensive coaching session with 45 schools players in Donnybrook which was open to all schools' and club coaches.

By Smyth’s admission, Leinster has some significant advantages, what with 78 affiliated clubs, and 155 schools.

Every Monday night Smyth, Hogan and others drive to Naas, and coach what they call the 20 YSPs, Youth Select Players, in the province, as they also search for the next Seán O'Brien, Tadhg Furlong, Adam Byrne or Carbery.

“Incrementally, the Youths will continue to produce more and more. When I came into this, one thing I said when I leave this building, I want everyone in the whole province to know what the Leinster academy staff does, because the schools can look after themselves.

Youths game

“Can the schools produce much more than they’re doing? The real growth area in Leinster rugby is the club and youths game, through us resourcing the best youth and club kids to the best of our ability.”

In truth, a vast number of people are involved in a player's development into a fully-fledged Leinster player, often starting with the unheralded efforts of parents providing lifts, gear and encouragement, as well as voluntary club and schools' coaches all the way up to himself and his staff, and then Leo Cullen and his.

“If a player starts at the age of eight and gets capped at 22, it’s a long pathway, including physios and mentors, family members, neighbours, team-mates,” says Smyth. “It’s phenomenal when you think of it. It really isn’t a science. It’s more an art form.”

It’s just as well too, for the provinces cannot compete financially with the heavy spenders in French and English club rugby, and Leinster are bulk suppliers to the Irish squad.

Leinster have 40 contracted players on their books, plus the 21 in their academy, and have only three overseas players (they’re entitled to four) plus a special project, namely Jamison Gibson-Park.

Given they’ve already used 50 players this season, having a productive conveyor belt is simply a case of needs must.

Hence the IRFU fund an academy for up to 22 players, which is supplemented by €2 million from the Leinster Branch, which is generated through the professional team, into development programmes.

“It is aligned with the IRFU and built on succession planning,” says Smyth, “and this is coming down from David Nucifora [IRFU performance director] and Colin McEntee [ IRFU high performance manager].”

McEntee was the original Leinster academy manager for eight years, before being succeeded by Girvan Dempsey, with Smyth taking over last January. He oversees a full-time staff of nine, be it coaches, medical, strength and conditioning, physio and rehabilitation.

There’s also Phil Lawlor, domestic rugby manager, the various coaching and community development officers and so on. All told the Leinster staff now numbers close on 180.

Homogenous organisation

As Smyth also admits: “We have a lot of in-built advantages because of our education system, and rugby’s reach into clubs and schools. And we’re not competing with other professional teams or sports.”

Like all the provinces, Leinster is also a very homogenous organisation. Lancaster has been taken aback at how so many within Leinster’s UCD headquarters know each other from the schools, clubs and Leinster pathway.

For example, Smyth was a team-mate of Cullen’s all the way from Willow Park under-8s through their famous “Dream Team” of 1995-96 and then Leinster, for whom he played 39 times from 1998 to 2004, with Smyth’s darts at hooker usually locating Cullen.

Emmet Farrell, a year above them in Blackrock, is the senior squad’s head video analyst. Smyth himself has been coaching at Blackrock school, from where he is currently on a three-year leave of absence, or the St Mary’s club since 1999.

Leinster strive to start identifying talent from around 15 or 16 through to 20 or 21.

"The most important thing is to keep an open mind," says Smyth, in spotting hidden gems. The easy ones, such as Jamie Heaslip, are just that. Having identified a player in a school or club, it is thereafter "all about relationships", and specifically with the player's coaches.

The province’s strength & conditioning staff, overseen by Dave Fagan, Leinster’s underage S&C coach, help with fitness programmes in a way which the schools game, once something of a fiefdom, would never have tolerated until about five or six years ago.

Once selected for the academy, whether directly or through the sub-academy, players will generally spend four mornings a week at Leinster’s UCD base, starting from around 7am or 8am, with gym, video or pitch sessions, before having breakfast as the senior squad come to work, and then attending lectures.

Several will be called up to senior squad sessions, at Cullen’s request. Otherwise, they train with their clubs on Thursday evenings with a view to playing with them at the weekends, provided they’re not needed by Leinster.

The dream

“The biggest thing Leo has brought in is that ‘they’re rugby players, they’re here to play rugby’, so if fit they play for their clubs,” says Smyth.

“That’s where we spend all our Saturdays, at club games. And any club games we don’t see, the video is sent in. What they do in the AIL can dictate if they get selected for the Pro12. ”

“The cross-section, academic-wise, is huge,” adds Smyth. One current academy member is in DIT, another in Griffith College, two are in Trinity and 16 in UCD. This includes a medical student, commerce, arts, and business and law, while Adam Byrne is a qualified biomechanical engineer and Peader Timmins is studying to be one.

It is also a significant commitment from player and often family, as the basic IRFU grant for academy players – although doubled recently – is still a mere €8,000. Leinster help with daytime meals, playing and training gear, physio and so on, but chasing the dream is not a normal student’s lifestyle.

“If they play an AIL match on Saturdays, they’re probably drinking recovery drinks, getting a swim in – whatever it takes – because they know they’ve got to be ready to train on Monday. They’re not living the lives of students, they’re living the lives of professional players,” says Smyth.

“The main aspect of a professional rugby player is being able to train and play the game. You can’t have a student night on a Wednesday night with a session at 8am on the Thursday morning. That just doesn’t happen, because they all want to be the best player they can be.”

“We just want to give everyone we come into contact with the best opportunity to be the best rugby player they can be, and if that’s a cap for Leinster, isn’t it great for that guy? Or if it’s 100 times, once anyone who interacts in our system says: ‘I got every opportunity to get the best out of my talent.’ And if everyone in the province is on the same page as that, then we’re all in a good place.”

How Leinster’s Academy numbers stack up.

Last week’s trio of European Champions Cup debutants – Adam Byrne, Ross Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin – are all products of the Leinster Academy, as were 17 of the 23-man match-day squad.

It is the province’s finishing school as such, and the engine which drives a production line second to none in the European game. All told, 139 players have come into Leinster’s academy system since 2004, including the 21 who are currently in their first, second or third years.

Subtracting the 17 current members of the Academy yet to play for the province, of the other 122, 93 academy graduates have progressed to senior rugby contracts – 67 of them at Leinster along with another 26 elsewhere.

These include Conor Gilsenan, who is at London Irish, Ruaidhri Murphy, who played Super 14 rugby with the Brumbies and then Ulster, Paul Doran Jones, the English prop, David Gannon, who played for Connacht and Southland in New Zealand, and latterly Kelleher.

When five of them made their debuts for Ireland during the November window – Carbery, Ringrose, James Tracey, Dan Leavy and Luke McGrath – it swelled to 26 the number of academy products to have played for Ireland.

And Leinster will be disappointed if their tally of five academy products who have played for the Lions isn’t increased next summer.

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