Streamlined development system designed to guarantee the future of Irish rugby
‘The system is there to provide players with the resources and abilities to maximise their talent’
Peter Smyth, IRFU head of elite player development: “Identifying players’ physical attributes, technical attributes, tactical attributes; they will stand out at some element of the game in the initial stage and they will be flagged.” Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
The future of Irish rugby is currently wedded to a process identifying 320 young players that are affiliated to National Talent Squad (NTS) or Provincial Talent Squads (PTS) with a view to enjoying a career in professional rugby.
There are a further 67 elite young players across the four provincial academies and 57 staff at national and provincial level dedicated to the system.
Some of the high-profile graduates include Craig Casey, Ryan Baird, James Hume, Michael Lowry, Niall Murray, Ethan McIlroy, Jack O’Sullivan, Hugh O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole and Jack Aungier, all of whom have played in the Heineken Champions Cup.
Thomas Ahern, Tom Clarkson, Ben Healy, Scott Penny, Stewart Moore and Michael Milne are other high-profile members.
Recently Ulster centre Ben Moxham (19) and Leinster centre Jamie Osborne (19) on foot of senior debuts have graduated to academy contracts.
The immediate challenge for those charged with implementing, maintaining and overseeing the programme in the IRFU, Peter Smyth, head of elite player development and Wayne Mitchell, national talent co-ordinator, is to try and ensure the development and wellbeing, physical and mental of the players, in the absence of matches.
The NTS programme started in 2016 and is managed provincially on a day to day basis. There was an intake of 65 players (NTS) this season with a further 255 in the PTS system. There are three levels within both programmes; three is a foundation phase for 15-17 years, two a development phase (17-19 years) while three is the performance phase (19-21 years).
The process starts at provincial level when talented players are identified at 14 or 15 years of age in clubs and schools. Smyth elaborated on the mechanics.
“Players get identified for various different reasons. We have, primarily through Wayne, built a whole talent ID project, which we will be rolling out across the four provinces, starting from a very early age.
“Identifying players’ physical attributes, technical attributes, tactical attributes, they will stand out at some element of the game in the initial stage and they will be flagged.
“I had a meeting with the England Cricket Board on talent identification and how they do it. The biggest thing that I took out of it was that they have a tag-line, ‘multiple eyes, multiple times’, and that’s what we are trying to adopt.
“Any player that is identified for any squad, we are trying to gather as much as we can on that player from professional staff, volunteers, coaches, parents and opposition coaches. For example in cricket (the ECB) they never send a scout to watch the same player more than twice.
“They rotate their scouts around the different players and compile reports; they get an opinion across three different personnel on the same player, rather than one guy. That guides against unconscious bias.
“We are looking at other sports to see how they do it and who has the best system at the minute. We have dealt a lot with New Zealand rugby and their system, the same with Australia and obviously we have a fair idea of the other Six Nations as well.”
The drop out rate amongst those in their late teens and early 20sis a concern. Smyth said: “There’s been a drop-off rate in all sports going on 20 years.
“Trying to arrest that, trying to broaden the base of rugby, that’s something we’ve been grappling with for 20-30 years. I think what this time has done, it’s given us a chance to sit back and say ‘what other strategies can we bring into play to ensure we keep more people in the game for longer, be that at whatever level’.”
Those involved in the process are looking in less conventional areas to boost quality and quantity. So is the crosspollination between provinces, players moving from one to the other going to grow. Smyth said: “It’s always the case, ultimately, that players will seek the best opportunity to play the game.
“The system is there to provide players with the resources and abilities to maximise their talent and provide them with playing opportunities. After that, it’s up to the player to see where those best opportunities are for him.”