Star track boldly goes for the next generation
LEINSTER ACADEMY: GERRY THORNLEYlooks on as fledgling professionals are put through well-drilled paces in preparation for possible life at the top level with the province
IT'S TUESDAY, late morning in Donnybrook on one of those pristine, manicured pitches synonymous with September. The forwards have come from the back pitch to join the backs. Michael Cheika is overseeing a fairly full-on, 15 v 15 session with rolling subs as both coach and referee.
A first year Academy graduate squares up to one of Leinster's established Test players and Heineken Cup winner for his use of the boot on Trevor Hogan for lying on the wrong side of the ball. Cheika steps in, issues a few words and calls a halt to proceedings.
Not the least misplaced perception of the academies is they rarely train with the professionals, and when they do, they become glorified tackle bag holders. As was abundantly evident here, that isn't the case.
Leinster Academy manager Colin McEntee credits this greater interaction to Cheika, who himself reckons this year's crop is the best in his five years at Leinster. This is just as well, as the Irish provinces rely on home-grown talent more than their counterparts, especially in France and England.
Ten of Leinster's Heineken Cup winning team, and 14 of the 22 on duty against Leicester at Murrayfield, were products of the National or Leinster academies - the IRFU's National Academy having been de-centralised into four provincial units in 2004.
Twenty of this season's contracted squad came through the Leinster/Irish academy pathway, and that doesn't include their ex-Munster recruits.
The 10-week pre-season and September, before college starts, are the academies' time of bounty.
"Pre-season is the time when you can maximise development, and there's no game or external distractions," says McEntee, "so they train full-time for eight to 10 weeks."
The players arrive at about 7am most mornings in the David Lloyd Centre in Riverview. There's also a new, purpose-built gym at the end of the Old Wesley clubhouse in Donnybrook - the walls are decorated with noted Academy graduates - for those in the sub-Academy underage system, and there aspiring Academy players are monitored by Dave Fagan, full-time age grade manager, and Sammy Dowling, age grade fitness coach.
From Monday to Friday, the Academy players mix "prehab" - functional exercises to work on core fitness, such as back, shoulder or leg stablisation or other functional movements - speed sessions, weights or skills, and "individual priorities", where, for example, a player might require work in specific areas to improve functionality, or if they've imbalances in terms of flexibility or range of movement. It could also be rugby priorities such as kicking, tackling or whatever.
On Thursday afternoon, 10 players were in the gym, while seven others trained with the Leinster first-team. Daniel Tobin, the Academy's full-time fitness and conditioning coach who came from the Dublin GAA team, singles out prop Dominic Ryan's marks but also says that thanks to the improved under-age screening and conditioning from 15 or 16 up, this year's crop are the best conditioned of any in the five years he's been with the academy.
Tobin admits things will become "messy" when the college timetables kick in, and though McEntee agrees, he believes third-level education is vital.
"We have to help provide the players with a holistic system, and if they are stimulating their minds it will help them in the process of making decisions on the pitch."
Leinster provided 15 of the original 26-man squad for the Junior (Under-20) World Cup in Japan last June, including the newly acquired Ruddock brothers. The Academy operates on a one-year rollover basis, with a maximum of three years.
Many are stand-out performers for their school sides, and come into the Academy having represented Leinster and Ireland at under-age level. Many more are spotted, coached, conditioned and monitored, inching towards the Academy through a Talent Identification Player programme.
To illustrate the point, McEntee borrows pen and pad to draw a graph of the data-based feeder system used by Leinster, from under-16 through 18s, 19s and 20s, with the schools and youths/club ladder running in tandem.
McEntee agrees with his trusted right-hand man, Richie Murphy, they have tabs pretty much on everybody within the province at under-age level, and little, if any, real talent will miss the net. The CDOs, coaching development officers, are their eyes and ears on the ground, casting their nets across all the province's 12 counties, and coaching coaches as well as players.
"But, if you ask me in two years' time, we'll probably have moved on as well. Am I happy? Relatively. Can we improve? Absolutely. And I think that is the key," says McEntee.
When McEntee first came into the system as a CDO (then known as RDOs, regional development officers) about 10 years ago, each had their areas and pathways, "but we probably didn't specialise, and we definitely didn't have the added resources," he admits.
The CDOs also have more of a hands-on role within the under-age system and hence the Academy can inter-react with them more meaningfully than would have been the case.
"I'd also add that I think our relationship with the stakeholders (clubs and schools) is key. The work they do is fundamental. We're only as good as what they do and by having a good relationship with them it takes the strain off the resources.
"Aside from the seven CDOs, we have a lot of coaches out there whom we speak to regularly; some within the Leinster system and some not."
When the National Academy was initially established under Stephen Aboud in the early 90s, McEntee himself was a second year product of that.
Aboud worked wonders (Anthony Foley and Jeremy Davidson were products of the first year, with Malcolm O'Kelly, Kieron Dawson and Conor McGuinness all in the second year alongside McEntee), considering the dozen to 15 chosen met periodically - a fortnight or so in the summer, mid-term breaks, Christmas and Easter - for intensive testing and training.
"There was support and resources, but your daily programme was run by yourself," recalls McEntee. "It gives you a great insight. If you look at that programme, it was very successful. Why was it successful? Because if guys didn't do the work they were gone. Simple as."
Now, every session, both on the pitch and the gym, is monitored. External professionals come in to give talks, and nutritional advice, physiotherapy and coaching is now all full-time. Regionalising the academies also aligns them directly to each province's professional set-up.
The elite schools are still the core suppliers, especially Blackrock and their production line of backs, but the clubs play their part too and the net is being cast wider - with gems popping up in previously uncharted territory, Tullow's Seán O'Brien being a case in point.
But McEntee maintains you can never dwell on the successes. "It's getting more and more competitive, and challenging, and you can't stand still. And that's probably player-driven as well, because if the quality rises and the standards rise at the top of the game, underneath has to rise too to breach the gap. And that's the challenge.
"I don't dislike my job at all and the nature of the job is such that if I didn't like it I wouldn't do it because of the commitment, time and effort you have to put in."
McEntee acknowledges Leinster are enjoying a very good cycle right now, and while he believes in the programme and the people he has around him, not all Academy members will make the pro ranks.
It irks McEntee that there's a perception out there that the Academy players are constrained from playing for their clubs. In welcoming the British and Irish Cup, which will give his Leinster A side a competitive and more streamlined structure, he points out that this will only clash with the AIB Cup, and that the players will be available for the AIL.
He also stresses the Leinster As, who he coaches, will delve into the club game as well which, he argues, should excite leading club players in giving them a clearer avenue toward Leinster.
The conception that Leinster have a high turnover rate, with casualties galore annoys him even more, to the point he walks out of the Riverview weights room vowing to obtain "some stats for you" and returns with his pc.
There it all is in colour code - every player signed to the Leinster academy since it was formed in 2004. With an average of 18 or 19 per year, only 11 players have been released or completed their three-year cycle without obtaining professional contracts, while another four have opted to move on to other things.
All told, 33 players who have passed through the academy in the last four years (including Luke Fitzgerald, who pretty much skipped straight into a pro contract on leaving school) went into the professional ranks, and of those 27 are still in contract.
This includes 10 players based in the other provinces or abroad, but most are in Leinster. Even Toulouse, who have the lowest number of foreign players in the over-loaded French Top 14, would struggle to compete with that.
And while the Academy route is not the only way to the professional ranks, it certainly gives them every chance.
Leinster Academy 2009-2010
First year, 20, prop.
Hopes are high for the highly-regarded St Mary's tighthead, who was involved in every game in the Under-20 World Cup in Japan on both sides of the scrum. Can help fill a bare looking cupboard.
First year, 20, hooker.
Belvedere College hooker, dogged at close quarters and extremely good line-out thrower.
First year, 19, prop.
Welsh under-18 tighthead whose dad is Irish and hence arrived from Newport three weeks ago. Not many Irish tightheads weigh in at 128kgs!
First year, 20, lock.
Product of St Finian's, Mullingar, and youths/club system, 6ft 7in UCD lock has played nine times for Ireland under-20s.
First year, 20, lock.
Son of ex-Leinster coach Mike and elder brother of Rhys; born in Ireland but came through Welsh system before declaring for Ireland prior to Junior World Cup. Has joined UCD.
Second year, 21, lock/backrow. From Gorey and youths scene initially, younger brother of Rory went to Blackrock for last school year on scholarship and now plays with Lansdowne.
Second year, 21, openside.
Another Blackrock College product, who gives 100 per cent at everything and if he doesn't make the pro ranks it won't be through lack of effort.
First year, 19, blindside flanker. Tough blindside flanker and prized acquisition. Like his brother, featured with Wales Under-16s, Ireland Under-20s at World Cup in Japan, where he sat his A levels, and is now studying commerce and playing at UCD.
First year, 19, backrow.
Big, physical backrow product of Gonzaga, now with Lansdowne, also played in Under-20 World Cup and has already caught eye of Leinster players. Immensely strong, physical player made for the new laws.
Second year, 21, scrumhalf.
Slick-passing, nippy product of Blackrock with a strong work ethic and good break who has had some Leinster game time this season.
Second year, 19, outhalf.
Currently injured, but an exceptional product of St Columba's now with UCD, with a cultured left boot. Made Magners League debut in the final game of last season.
First year, 20, outhalf/fullback
Another Blackrock product who underwent shoulder operation post Under-20 World Cup and won't be back for three or four months.
Third year, 22, outhalf/centre
St Gerard's College product, now with Blackrock, on fringes of Leinster first-team squad last season. Strong, physical with excellent skills set.
Second year, 20, centre.
Navan boy who came through the club/youths system and Ireland Under-20s. 6ft 4in inside centre in mould of Jamie Roberts.
Currently sidelined with groin problem.
First year, 18, centre
Star of the Blackrock and Ireland schools teams last season and straight into Academy. Quick, strong, good feet and vision.
First year, 20, wing.
Belvedere star who broke into Clontarf's team last season. Strong, quick, good feet, will get bigger, stronger and faster.
Third year, 22, wing.
Product of Boyne and the Leinster youths, now with Blackrock; strong, physical, direct, good finisher and offloader in tackler.
First year, 18, fullback.
Star turn for Blackrock last year, straight into academy; great footwork and out-and-out finisher who scored six tries in two pre-season games for Leinster Under-20s.
Second year, 20, wing/fullback Brother of Rob, similarly strong in air, athletic and big boot. After rapid improvement in last six months and storming Under-20 World Cup, he's already being promoted to a development contract this season.