Joe Lydon: Player development is a fascination for me

IRFU’s head of international talent brings raft of experience and passion to new role

IRFU’s head of international talent ID and development Joe Lydon: “Success has to be Ireland as a national team doing well. But it may be that means that there are no IQ players involved.” Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty Images

IRFU’s head of international talent ID and development Joe Lydon: “Success has to be Ireland as a national team doing well. But it may be that means that there are no IQ players involved.” Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty Images

 

“I went and got battered every summer trying to play various Gaelic sports that I didn’t understand. It stands you in good stead for when you play rugby league.” 

Joe Lydon briefly reminisces about holidays spent with his grandparents in Oughterard, information sought rather than volunteered during an introductory conversation as the IRFU’s head of international talent ID and development, a newly created role within the union.

 The 53-year-old boasts impressive bona fides. He is a former rugby league icon, 30 caps for Great Britain, five Challenge Cup winners’ medals with Wigan, one of a handful of players to win the Man of Steel (Player of the Year), Lance Todd Trophy (Challenge Cup final man of the match) and the Harry Sunderland Trophy (Premiership final man of the match).

 He also played for Widnes and enjoyed couple of off-seasons in Australian club rugby league with Eastern Suburbs in Sydney.

 His curriculum vitae also includes rugby union coaching staging posts, England U-19s (2000), England Sevens (2001-2004), backs’ coach to England under Andy Robinson (2004-2006) before in 2008 he was appointed head of rugby performance and development at the Welsh rugby union.

He stayed there for five years before being headhunted by the English RFU to take up a position of head of international player development, a role from which he resigned in March of last year. During his tenure his remit included the England Saxons, Sevens and under-20 teams and on the women’s side of the sport, Senior, Sevens and under-20s.   

Last November he began discussions with the IRFU’s performance director, David Nucifora, and in February slipped quietly into the job he now occupies.

There may have been no fanfare but it represents a significant coup, as the union trawls, systematically and thoroughly for Irish-qualified players, initially in Britain but eventually compiling a global database.

Last appearance

Lydon wears his Irish heritage lightly but it’s there nonetheless. He once donned the green jersey, when coming on during Ireland’s first ever rugby league international, against the US in Washington DC in 1995. He was ostensibly the manager of the team; it was to be his last appearance in international rugby league. 

He recalled sitting at the kitchen table in Wigan reading letters from “home” sent by his grandparents in Galway. His Irish heritage wasn’t a prime motivator in accepting the role as he explained: “As far as being Irish qualified [myself] that is a secondary thing. It wasn’t a problem for me to be here because as far as I am concerned it’s a profession.”

When a player born outside of Ireland sits opposite Lydon there will occasionally be that feeling of simpatico when it comes time to consider switching to the Irish system because there is a commonality in background terms.

Since I came on board it’s about looking at things and seeing how we can improve

Eight years of fulfilling similar roles on behalf of the WRU and English RFU underline Lydon’s passion for this aspect of the sport. “Player development and ID is a fascination for me, an opportunity to identify talent and maximise that potential. There are so many things that you can’t get right but there are ways you can help. I think it is a fascinating opportunity.

“One of the most obvious things that was brought home to me when I was a kid, those who are Irish qualified or have Irish connections, ‘home is here [in Ireland].’ They tell you about it. You don’t have to force or foster that connection; it is already there.

 “As well as proving good quality support and programmes, if we can make awareness of those programmes, then people will come to us as well. You’re not constantly chasing or trying to unearth people.

Identify and develop talent

“Since I came on board it’s about looking at things and seeing how we can improve and try and draw on my former experiences. Anyone in any sport has looked at how they can identify and develop talent. I think there is a lot of good stuff that we can plagiarise for want of a better term.

 “Someone said ‘if you take from one person it is plagiarism, if you take from lots it is research.’ We have done lots of research and we will continue to do that, whether it’s [from] American football or soccer in Europe.” Build it and they will come.

 The change in regulation eight governing the eligibility of players in international rugby and pushing out the residency qualification period to five years starting from 2020 places a greater emphasis on exploring other avenues in increasing the depth chart in playing personnel.

Lydon explained: “Regulation eight it’s no longer efficient or effective to be chasing a ‘time-serving’ player. By the time you have waited five years to get him there [Test rugby] he is probably ready for retirement.

“I have never actually been convinced that getting a ‘time-serving’ player is good for the culture of a team. Players, male or female, have to want to play for Ireland and have to be able to play within the [new] regulations.

“They have to be born here themselves, or have a parent or a grandparent [that’s Irish born]; seven chances. Then you don’t have to wait ‘time-serving,’ you don’t have to spend that energy persuading yourself or the player that they are Irish when they are not.

“Fundamentally that is the driver for myself. Half of my family are happy that I have come home; 35 years it’s taken me to get here. We want players and coaches to have that connection already. You don’t have to persuade them.

“We are not going to chase someone that’s playing at Moseley or playing in the Brumbies and say ‘we’ll work with you for five years and then you’ll be qualified.’

 “It’s you are qualified [not us converting you to feeling that way on a residency basis]. If you look at the number of people who leave the country, Ireland leads the world.

 “There is 28 per cent of the [Irish] population that are outside of the country. Of the 301 million in America, 49 million are of Irish descent; that’s eight times bigger than the Irish population.”

Growing database

 Lydon, who’ll work alongside Wayne Mitchell (elite player development officer) and former Irish international Kevin Maggs, newly appointed as IQ regional talent coach – he will also look after the IQ Sevens team – have a database that is growing by the day. Word of mouth has seen enquiries double and treble in number and the multiplier effect will get significantly greater if that interest continues.

 The IRFU will continue to bring British-born players over for summer trials with a view to placing them in Irish academies; Ulster-based Lorcan Dow and Johnny McPhillips examples of that strategy. Nucifora and Lydon have spoken to the English RFU, their primary competitors in the dual nationality qualified marketplace. 

Lydon added: “Every player that we are looking at will be IQ [Irish qualified] and will have their own individual player plan. We’ll have a database on them and know their deficiencies but also their strengths. 

“And we will try and provide more opportunities for them so whether that’s in a province or playing with a national representative team for Ireland, Sevens or 15s, or whether it is stay where you are and we will carry on supporting you, working with you to see what’s best for you. 

“Some of these kids may never come across but we will work with them. We said the same to the RFU and we will say the same to everyone else; if you’re an Irish-qualified athlete that’s in a programme currently, then we’ll not touch you.

 “We will help support and we will be honest about what we are trying to do in support of that player but we are not about getting anyone to break contracts or agreements.

 “We are also looking very closely at universities closely as well. One of the things Ireland has got in strength is great a great history and tradition of combining sporting opportunity with academic opportunity.

 “That’s really appealing to me but also to a whole host of athletes and their parents in the UK. If we can tie those two things together we feel that we have a better chance of developing a person that is going to add to the culture of any team he is with, provincial or national.”

If by developing overseas talent that is Irish qualified helps the national team then that’s the massive tick for me.

When asked to offer an age range Lydon offered a 17-21 bracket but that doesn’t preclude younger or older, and he also pointed out the importance of supporting existing players and coaches in Britain.

 He also confirmed that the programme would look outside rugby to other sports. “As soon as you got into another sport you sometimes have zero playing age and training age [in rugby terms] so whilst the opportunity is there and huge you also have a fair distance to bring them.

Multiple opportunities

“But then we have other vehicles by which we can do that. The Sevens is a great way to bring them into ruby under a magnifying glass. You can take an athlete that may have played basketball and put him in a Sevens environment.

 “You can take a female athlete now who may have been a fresher at university and within five years or four or three could be an Olympian. There are multiple opportunities and different ways of doing it. It’s not just rugby talent, however it is a lot easier when it is rugby talent because they have an idea and experience.

 “One of the things we are doing with Kevin [Maggs] and what Wayne [Mitchell] has already done for 18 months is that personal contact, to make sure that we can support players.

 “However, the geographical spread of the UK never mind globally is pretty big in numbers so we will still be looking at regional [set-ups], working to complement the Exiles programme and network and then we will refine the process to add coaching support, mentoring, nutrition, lifestyle [advice], you name it; anything that we feel is missing once we have done that assessment.”

 So what would success look like? “Success has to be Ireland as a national team doing well. But it may be that means that there are no IQ players involved. They are all home-grown and Irish talent, which would be fantastic but if by developing overseas talent that is Irish qualified helps the national team then that’s the massive tick for me.

 “You want everyone in Ireland to be playing rugby and retained in rugby and playing well. What we are trying to do is add to it and support it and if there are any gaps, and if we can add more. If we can have five deep in every position for Ireland whether they come from Birmingham in England or Birmingham in America it doesn’t matter as long as they are Irish qualified.

 “If we can help one player get into the national team in a better state, be better developed, having had more opportunity, that is a success.” 

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