Six Nations 2015: In camp with the Ireland under-20s

John O’Sullivan finds a wholly professional regime under head coach Nigel Carolan

Tuesday, January 6th, a day of reckoning.

It’s a little before 10am in the Lansdowne pavilion, a bright, crisp morning, but one where the mercury barely climbs past zero. The wind chill factor makes it seem even colder.

Fresh-faced young men seek out every nook and cranny of the upstairs bar, chairs scattered around tables in ever increasing circles as newcomers are greeted by the slap of a hand or an inclination of the head, before pulling up a pew.

There is something incongruous in the atmosphere. It should be more boisterous; after all there is a little shy of 40, mostly teenage, rugby players present, constituents of an extended Ireland Under-20 squad in the throes of preparing for the Six Nations Championship.


The chatter is subdued though, primarily because they’re all acutely aware of what lies immediately ahead.

Today every player will self-assess his contribution in December's warm-up matches, a victory over a Leinster Development XV (22-15) at Donnybrook and a defeat to a Munster Development selection (24-19) in Temple Hill and present to one of four scrutineers; the new head coach Nigel Carolan, forwards' coach Collie McEntee, scrum coach John Fogarty and Stephen Aboud, head of Technical Direction at the IRFU and assistant coach.

The process facilitated a cull in numbers. Props, Liam O'Connor and Andrew Porter, young hooker Adam McBirney, backrow Ross Todd, scrumhalf Conor Young – Old Belvedere's Charlie Rock who hadn't been part of the extended squad but was under consideration – outhalf Ross Bingham, centres Ross Neal and JJ O'Neill and Stephen McMahon (back three), saw Nigel Carolan's number pop up the following Monday. It wasn't good news.

Ray McSharry stands just inside the entrance to the room, tape measure in hand. He jots down a series of numbers, measuring the wingspan of his human mannequins: blazer on, blazer off. It's a process that lasts for over an hour, only interrupted briefly, in seeking out team manager Hendrik Kruger to chivvy along those on McSharry's list of names that have yet to undergo the personalised tailoring process.

Physiotherapist Garrett Coughlan's table stands nearby, complete with paraphernalia for strapping. Strength and conditioning coach Eamonn Flanagan has his own stall at the far end of the room, festooned with a couple of giant tubs bearing words like Whey Protein, water, electrolyte drinks and a variety of health bars; fuel for the body.

The team's bagman, Lar Hogan, can be seen through the window, colour co-ordinating cones among a hundred other jobs in preparation for the afternoon training session. He manhandles the ladder belonging to the team's Performance Analyst Jim Herring into place behind the goalposts at the clubhouse end.

Dotted around pillars are laminated A4 sized signs that bear the cultures and values that the players have chosen under a variety of different headings. One ‘Team purpose,’ outlines the goal ‘to create an environment that enhances the opportunity for as many players as possible to achieve success in the professional game’.

There are others but what is common to each sign are the words, ‘determination, hard work, integrity, enjoyment,’ that represent the team’s values. The sentiments aren’t random but generated through a questionnaire that the players complete.

The captain is chosen by his peers, not the management. Under the heading, ‘Nominate the player who best typifies the particular leadership characteristic,’ the group fill in team-mates’ names in answer to 14 questions that begin with ‘is one of the hardest working players in the team,’ and conclude with ‘will constructively challenge his team-mates when necessary,’ stopping at 12 stations in between.

What they are being asked to do is identify the leader within the group, an empowerment that permeates much of what is done on and off the pitch. The management team want the players to challenge themselves, each other and the coaches; they want their charges to problem-solve on the pitch, to be self-sufficient to a certain extent and to enjoy the journey that lies ahead both in the Six Nations and a World Championship next June.

UCD and Leinster academy scrumhalf Nick McCarthy topped the poll and would later reflect. “I was surprised, honoured, delighted; it was a mix of emotion but I also recognise the challenge. I haven’t been captain all that much in my career but I suppose I would tend to try and lead by example.

“There are loads of good players around me to help me make decisions so as Nigel (Carolan) says, the onus isn’t on me all the time.”

His assertion is borne out by empirical evidence. On Sunday, December 28th, in a second floor team room in the River Lee hotel in Cork, four players take it in turn, alighting on different aspects, to run through the playbook for the following day’s game against the Munster Development XV in Temple Hill.

It’s a Power Point presentation with a twofold objective; to ensure that everyone understands the patterns and in reinforcing McCarthy’s point that there is a leadership cabal within the team.

Back to the Lansdowne clubhouse. Carolan, Aboud, McEntee and Fogarty peel away to an annex off the bar, where they find tables and a couple of chairs, separated at irregular intervals so as to maintain a level of privacy. The players are split into groups, some head for a gym session downstairs, while those remaining, anxiously clutch A4 dossiers – or their playbooks as the players describe them.

Every player will be given 10 minutes; it subsequently turns out to be in excess of 20 and there is no alphabetical or pecking order to determine who’s first or last. Understandably there’s a little hesitancy in being in the first quartet of players to present to the coaches: Carolan and Aboud takes the backs, McEntee and Fogarty the forwards.

Laptops, containing footage of the two warm-up matches, are primed as most players shuffle self-consciously towards a seat. Jacob Stockdale is among the first. The young Ulster centre-cum-wing opens his folder to a specific page to reveal a customised grid in which there are handwritten notes, next to numbers; sheet performance indicators is the official term.

Each individual was given a copy of the match or matches in which they played; the entire game not an edited version, cut and spliced to contain only their particular playing cameos as is normally the case. Stockdale begins: “1.29, a break from a midfield scrum.” Carolan slides the cursor along the screen. The numbers correspond to the match time, the notes are the player’s interpretation or explanation as to whether they made a positive or negative contribution to the team and rationalising their decision-making process at that moment.

What becomes abundantly clear when sitting in on several assessments is that the players are quite self-critical. But that’s not fundamentally what the process is about. It’s not exclusively about highlighting mistakes or conversely moments of excellence but inviting the player to take ownership of his own performance, teasing out his options in a given moment and why he arrived at a particular decision. It also offers the coach an insight into personality and character traits.

Carolan periodically interjects gently, asking a question here, making an observation there. Some 20 minutes later and having looked at 16 clips, the coach turns to the player and asks him to sum up his contribution and also what work-ons, to use the vernacular, Stockdale will take forward. Carolan then offers his thoughts.

It's a new process that he's instigated in his first season as head coach of the team. His predecessor, Mike Ruddock, did a superb job, culminating in reaching the World Championship semi-final last season and finishing fourth overall but the IRFU was looking for a greater tie-in with the four provincial academy programmes.

Carolan has worked wonders as manager of the Connacht academy in producing some outstanding young talent – Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty are protégées – while leading the western province to an Under-20 interprovincial title in 2011; a notable feat in itself.

The former wing, who straddled the amateur and professional rugby eras as a player with Connacht before retiring because of a neck injury in 2000, has been employed by the IRFU since 2002 and has been academy manager in the province since 2004.

This is his third stint with this particular age-grade, having previously been a technical analyst in 2004-2005 – it was U-21 at the time – and for two seasons from 2009-2011 as backs' coach, alongside Allen Clarke.

So what’s his philosophy in accepting the remit of head coach.

“We see this (Ireland Under-20) as an extension of the academy programme, which is essentially player development, and this is to confirm players for professional rugby.

"It's about identifying the guys who have the ability to be successful at professional rugby. Of course we want to win; it's very important but we haven't set a milestone that we want to win the Six Nations, we want to win the World Cup, because it's more about the culture we are trying to create.

“When we sat down with the players on the first week, we said ‘what do you want to achieve, what’s important? We established the vision for the group which is very much based upon the players’ aspirations. We established out own mantra: SIMPLE THINGS DONE BRILLIANTLY.

“All we want to do is be happy with ourselves, be happy we have done our best, that as management group we have facilitated the potential of the players and allowed them to perform.”

Sitting close by, scrum coach John Fogarty is out of his chair, offering a demonstration in technique to young Adam McBirney; a couple of happy hookers oblivious to their surroundings. Watching forwards’ coach Collie McEntee dwarf his surroundings physically, it’s hard to reconcile the quietly-spoken, thoughtful and occasionally smiling persona of the review process with the waspish sergeant major who calls a spade, a f*****g spade on the training ground. Vocally he’s got gears.

He’s been involved at this level for several years, was previously the Academy manager at Leinster and since 2013 the union’s High Performance Manager.

This year’s management are embarking on a new direction. He explained: “If you look at how the game has progressed in Ireland and how the provinces view their indigenous player progression planning, the 20s is seen as part of that process, be it development or identification. Maybe a number of years ago it wasn’t as important because there wasn’t the same alignment.

“Respecting everything that has been done before – and we have been very successful at this age-group – there was a need to have the Under-20s as a programme as opposed to a team. That was always my vision. By having it in a programme we have all the provinces fully aligned. That gives you good clarity. It allows you to progress quicker. It serves a greater purpose for the players as an accelerated development process.”

As if to reinforce the point, McEntee explains how Joe Schmidt takes an active interest in the programme. "All the (Ireland) coaches have requested the footage of the games. Joe is quite keen to know how the guys are getting on and that applies to the other coaches, Simon (Easterby), Les (Kiss) and Greg (Feek).

“I have shared a lot of footage and they have been a good support to the programme. It gives us a good insight into what they are looking at. It is part of their development. That’s very positive. They need to know what’s coming through, in relation to the type of player and their attributes; the IRFU and provinces too in terms of succession planning.”

Players come and go as does lunch – soup, brown roll, beef fajitas with a truckload of vegetables – before the time comes to test theory in practice on the back pitch at Lansdowne Road.

First there is a meeting at which the coaches take turns to present on certain aspects of the game, using the footage from the matches.

Suddenly the atmosphere is as you would expect, loud and intense, the air filled with grunting collisions and whistles before the day ends for most with a wrapped sandwich and a long car journey home.