Friday 19 January 2018

John O'Brien: Eyes to the future

Munster's academy set-up is beginning to throw up some gems, writes John O'Brien

So soon they'll bid farewell to home-bound Tony McGahan and the more highly-strung Munster supporter is left wondering who might be next in his wake.

They've fondly waved John Hayes back to the family farm. Tomás O'Leary, it seems, is Perpignan-bound alongside Lifeimi Mafi. They wonder too if they've seen the last Peter Stringer pass in a red jersey, sad they might never get to say a proper thank you for all the memories.

They scan match programmes and squad lists with increasingly furrowed brows, surveying the gnarled features of once-great warriors now on the wrong side of 30: O'Driscoll, Leamy, Flannery, Wallace, O'Callaghan. What life left in those creaking old bones now? As for the icy nerve of Ronan O'Gara and the steely glare of Paul O'Connell, well, let's not go there. Too raw. Too painful to contemplate.

To catch a glimpse of the future you cross the Living Bridge over the Shannon to the northside of the University of Limerick campus and behold a quiet revolution taking place. Slick new buildings sprouting up, all-weather pitches rolling into the countryside, all part of a €9m development in which a broad church of sports -- Munster rugby and Limerick GAA foremost among them -- share a base and similar notions of self-enhancement.

In the bar upstairs, Peter Malone, a genial Bruff native in his mid-30s, sips a coffee and talks about a future that excites and daunts him in equal measure. Malone is just eight weeks into his role as Munster academy director but it helps that he has been through the system, a former aspiring professional back-row forward whose misfortune was to be good at things Leamy excelled at. "No issues," Malone says. "Denis sailed ahead of me. He was an outstanding talent."

That Munster would entrust a key role in such youthful hands is evidence, in itself, of the province's commitment to revitalising its brand, a resolve that has often faced stiff scrutiny. When they were routed in Toulon just over a year ago, the shock of failing to reach the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time in 13 seasons elicited much gloomy prognosis about the future and McGahan's ability to steer a supposedly listing ship.

In hindsight, much of that criticism seems short-sighted now. Not just in the results Munster have achieved on the field this season, but in the fact that the process of internal soul-searching had been initiated long in advance and, regardless of how they fare over the rest of the season, McGahan has already bequeathed a legacy they hope will stand them in good stead for generations to come.

When he succeeded Declan Kidney in 2008, McGahan offered a candid assessment of Munster's overall bill of health. Their academy, he said, was lagging two years behind Leinster's and, in sounding that warning, he found a hierarchy willing to listen. "There were changes and the game had moved on," says Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald. "It takes time to readjust and we acknowledged that. We were behind where we should have been and we've worked hard to correct it."

Under McGahan's prompting, they hired an external consultant with expert knowledge of sporting systems and conducted a root-and-branch audit of how their academy system was functioning and, three years on, they are beginning to see the fruits of those labours.

"Tony is a very hands-on guy when it comes to the academy," says Donal Lenihan, chairman of the academy board. "He sets minimum standards for academy lads even before they get to train with the seniors and it's working. They're coming in younger and younger now."

On the surface it's easy to see why Munster might have fallen behind with their academy. Given his record, Kidney is beyond reproach in Munster, of course, but the price for nurturing a settled, world-class unit whose manic quest for European glory assumed mythical proportions was taking their eye off the ball when it came to the long-term future. "We were deficient in some areas," concedes Fitzgerald. "But I think that happens anywhere you have players in positions for long periods of time."

Yet while accepting they had serious issues to deal with, it clearly irritates them to hear the charge that they have a poor record in producing young, home-grown talent. "You accept criticism in this job," Fitzgerald says, "it comes with the territory. But I think the perception that Munster aren't doing things [with the academy] is wrong. It has been exaggerated."

On his desk Malone keeps a sheet of paper detailing the players who have come through the academy since the system was regionalised in 2004: O'Leary and Keith Earls among the first batch and a steady trickle all the way to last year's vintage which included gems like Conor Murray, Simon Zebo, Mike Sherry, Sean Henry and John Ryan. Malone scans through the senior squad and reckons "the bones of 50%" filtered through the academy, a figure he'd like to see rise in the years to come.

The figures don't impress everyone, of course, and unfavourable comparisons with Leinster's slick conveyor belt that has unearthed a multitude of stars over the past five years are a regular bane of their lives. They would sharply question the validity of the comparison, however. For one thing they can't match Leinster's relatively huge playing population or its vast network of rugby-playing schools and, by the very nature of their system, players are likely to develop at a later age.

The truth of that is regularly borne out on underage Ireland teams. On the under 20 side that played Italy in Athlone on Friday evening, for example, only two Munster players -- JJ Hanrahan and Niall Scannell -- featured on the first 15 while James Rael was the replacement hooker. Lenihan reminds you that a couple of years back both Murray and Ian Nagle struggled to get noticed at the same level. It's merely part of a familiar, underlying trend.

"Leinster have an advantage," Lenihan says. "Not just in school numbers, but they'd have less guys playing a number of different sports. I think that's a fair comment. A lot of our lads would be playing GAA and other sports from 15 to 18. We don't force them to specialise and nor would we want to. I remember talking to Ian McGeechan about this and he said that kids in Scotland who played a number of different sports tended to be better rugby players.

"I think that's very true. You look at Donnacha Ryan, for example, and you'd wonder if he'd have such superb hand-eye co-ordination if he hadn't grown up playing hurling. So while our lads might struggle a bit to make teams at underage level, by the time they're 21 or 22 they'll be catching up with guys ahead of them in other provinces."

As far as possible the academy system is structured on a needs-must basis with an obvious understanding that talent, in whatever position, can never be denied. There is a quota of 21 places in any given year but, with the emphasis on quality, that number is rarely reached. This year Malone has 18 in total with four -- Hanrahan, Luke O'Dea, Dave O'Callaghan and Dave Kilcoyne -- having tasted action in the Pro12 and that augurs well for their future prospects.

Ultimately, though, there are good bets and hopefuls but no sure things. In some quarters Hanrahan has already been hailed as the next Ronan O'Gara and they hope John Ryan can fill the void left by the retirement of John Hayes but nothing is guaranteed, particularly when it comes to the tricky business of nurturing prop forwards. They'd love to unearth a jewel like Cian Healy, of course, but freakish talent has a habit of appearing maybe once in a lifetime if at all.

The 23-year-old Ryan is a fair bet, though. A couple of years back he made a decision to take a year out of the academy and concentrate on playing club rugby for UCC, a critical switch for his development. For Munster, the link with clubs is considered vital. Lenihan isn't a fan of the directive that clubs can only use two contracted players per game. This time last year, he reminds you, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and Peter O'Mahony were all playing regularly in the All-Ireland League.

"That's something we'd feel strongly about," says Malone. "Especially when it comes to the front-row guys. Sometimes the real value for a prop can be playing hard games every week. As good as the academy system is, sometimes the important thing is to go away and play club rugby and learn your trade that way."

Because he is only fresh in the door, Malone can't offer a perspective on what went before, but what he has inherited encourages him. He has two elite development officers, Greig Oliver and Colm McMahon, working closely alongside him and a network of regional development officers combing the schools and clubs to ensure the net is kept as wide as possible until the best talent is identified and brought into the sub academy or the academy proper.

He sees the game branching out beyond its traditional stronghold. Hanrahan hails from Castleisland and, in the vibrant youth structures being nurtured in Killarney and Tralee, he sees more hope for the future. He sees Tommy O'Donnell and Dave Foley augmenting the Tipperary contingent and, best of all, he sees the huge strides being made in Waterpark and Dungarvan and envisages Waterford one day becoming a fruitful outlet for Munster rugby.

It will take time, of course. Cork and Limerick still provide the bulk of the current crop of academy hopefuls but, lower down the chain, he notices the shifting boundaries. Each summer they bring the four regional development squads together and the old assumption that the North and South, Limerick and Cork respectively, would be strongest no longer apply. "The East [Tipperary and Waterford] were a very strong team last year. This year it seems to be fairly even. I'd say most of the players on last year's under 18 team came from the East. That's hugely encouraging."

Everywhere they look there is encouragement. Lenihan thinks back to the night in November 2010 when Munster beat Australia at Thomond Park and, in the wondrous performances of Nagle, Peter O'Mahony and others, a capacity crowd was given a reassuring glimpse of a future that lay beyond the heroes of 2006 and 2008.

Murray was on the bench that night. Less than a year later, he was Ireland's first-choice scrumhalf at the World Cup.

Not that it was the best night of their lives, of course. It wasn't even close. It wasn't beating the All Blacks in '78. There was no miracle about it, just clear signs they were getting some things right, all deftly handled by a coach keeping one eye on a future that would bubble with promise long after he had gone.

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