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Irish rugby reaps benefits from fee-paying schools

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Blackrock College win the Leinster Schools Cup in 2013, beating St Michael’s — 13 of the 30 players who started that game went on to play professional rugby

Blackrock College win the Leinster Schools Cup in 2013, beating St Michael’s — 13 of the 30 players who started that game went on to play professional rugby

SPORTSFILE

Blackrock College win the Leinster Schools Cup in 2013, beating St Michael’s — 13 of the 30 players who started that game went on to play professional rugby

As key dates in Irish sporting history go, March 18, 2013 probably wouldn't be in the Reeling in the Years rotation. The biggest gig in town, on that particular Bank Holiday Monday, was the Leinster Schools Cup final between big brother and little brother, Blackrock and St Michael's.

As a game, it was thrilling, snatched by Blackrock in the closing moments with a dramatic try. However, it's only with the benefit of hindsight that we can see the occasion's true value, serving as another reminder of the never-ending conveyor belt that travels directly from the schools game all the way up to the national team.

In total, 13 of the 30 players who started that game went on to play professional rugby - as illustrative a clash as there has ever been in highlighting just how intrinsic a role these schools play in stocking the Irish rugby cupboards, with Garry Ringrose, James Ryan and Ross Byrne among those playing that day.

While players such as Tadhg Furlong and Sean O'Brien have done wonders for broadening rugby's base and chipping away at the perception that it is a sport confined to certain classes, Ireland's professional game is still hugely reliant on a number of fee-paying schools to hand deliver ready-made soldiers for provincial conscription.

Blackrock and St Michael's are the market leaders in the supply chain, churning out prospects at an astounding rate.

The former's tendrils extend across the Irish rugby landscape like Daniel Plainview's underground oil-rigging operation in There Will Be Blood, with past pupils scattered across the island playing in all four provinces. Amazingly we've now reached a stage where Blackrock College has more former pupils playing for Connacht and Munster than in Leinster (five and four vs three).

Blackrock's pervasiveness is best summed up by the back row who won the 2014 Leinster Schools Cup. Caelan Doris, Conor Oliver and Nick Timoney all turned professional - and are now playing for Leinster, Munster and Ulster.

The school, which currently has 15 past pupils playing professionally in Ireland, make them the leading supplier, followed closely by St Michael's, who can lay claim to 11 of Leinster's 45-man senior squad - with another man down in Munster.

Of the 174 players listed across the four provincial senior squads, 80 went to fee-paying schools. But when you localise it to Leinster and Munster, the numbers show just how big a part these institutions play in Ireland's two most successful professional teams - 53 of the 89 players in their squads went to fee-paying schools.

Blackrock, St Michael's, Clongowes, PBC Cork and CBC Cork have 45 players plying their trade across the four provinces currently, making them the bulk providers of raw material.

While the schools game has always been the main supplier to the national team, the trickle-down effect of professionalism has sped up the process exponentially, meaning that 18-year-olds are now well versed in every aspect of preparation - from strength and conditioning to video analysis to on-pitch training - by the time they pick up their Leaving Cert results.

An increasing number of schools have facilities on par with professional teams, with a director of Rugby at the top of the tree ensuring a joined-up coaching philosophy across all years. If it all sounds very serious, it's because it is.

However, the schoolboys are willing participants. For some, it is the perfect proving ground for life as a pro rugby player, and for others, it is a taste of what it is like to be inside a high-performance environment.

"The way it is laid out at St Michael's is not that different to a professional set-up so when they make the step up, it is not that big in their head," St Michael's director of rugby, Andy Skehan, said in a 2018 interview.

"They are used to the early mornings, the reviews, the medicals. Some other lads, who aren't used to that, might find it difficult and fall away or might not be aware of what that step actually is."

Watching these schools go head-to-head in spring cup competitions is a window into just how closely they are operating alongside the professional game. Joe Schmidt-style 'starter plays' that slice apart an opposition defence, like a surgeon's scalpel, are executed with the ruthless efficiency of any top team.

The days of 5-3 slugfests on a Donnybrook sandbox have been replaced by 28-27 thrillers played out on an immaculate 4G pitch, which has not only raised the skill levels of all the players, but made them demand higher standards from their coaches.

"When I played rugby, I don't really remember ever having a game plan," Skehan said.

"These players now have exact game plans that they expect, want and will execute on demand to the best of their abilities." 

Scott Penny is emblematic of the modern schools player. He was only five months out of St Michael's when he made his professional debut for Leinster last season.

The image of a scrawny teenager running out amongst men in a baggy jersey is as relevant today as a flip phone or cassette player. These boys - and they are boys despite their appearance - are now moulded from first year in secondary school to make a seamless transition to the professional world.

South Africa and New Zealand have powerhouse schools too, like Grey College in the former and Auckland Grammar in the latter, but no rugby-playing country in the world can come close to the Irish set-up in terms of providing men for work.

Of the 31 players named in Joe Schmidt's World Cup squad, 27 were educated in Ireland and 17 of those passed through fee-paying schools.

It is by no means a pre-requisite to succeed in the sport, with schools such as St Munchin's and Ardscoil Ris in Limerick producing some of the greatest players to play the game, but what has happened in the last 15 years has seen certain schools adopt the best practices espoused by the sport's pre-eminent practitioners, while housing everything in the best facilities possible.

The result is not only professional players getting bigger, faster and stronger, but getting younger, better and smarter too - and Irish rugby will continue to reap the benefits.

Sunday Independent