Thursday 22 February 2018

Marie Crowe: Keeping a mentoring eye on next generation

Home-grown players have been pivotal for Leinster and it's a trend they want to continue

Trevor Hogan (left) and Peter Smyth are the key men in Leinster’s talent hub which aims to nurture new elite players. Photo: Frank McGrath
Trevor Hogan (left) and Peter Smyth are the key men in Leinster’s talent hub which aims to nurture new elite players. Photo: Frank McGrath
Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

Nestled in the grounds of University College Dublin, lies the head office of Leinster Rugby. It's exactly what you'd expect the HQ of a big organisation to look like.

Fresh and bright with a big company logo emblazoned on the wall, or in this case the team crest. It's a busy place, filled by people tasked with keeping the wheels of a rugby machine turning. Lots of the staff who inhabit the offices are dressed in tracksuits, some are players, some used to be.

There's a great atmosphere around the place too and why wouldn't there be? A few days earlier Leinster had beaten a star-studded Wasps to earn their spot in the today's Champions Cup semi-final against Clermont. It's an exciting time for the province. The team is burgeoning with young talented players and solidified with experienced warriors, so the future looks rosy for Leinster rugby.

While there, Stuart Lancaster walks through the lobby en route to an interview with Newstalk's 'Off the Ball.' When a team is successful people want to know why. Especially when they go from struggling to succeeding like Leinster did in a 12-month swing. Questions are asked and systems examined. What's been the catalyst, what's brought about the change?

"People say it's the Leinster academy but there's more to it," explains Peter Smyth, who heads up the province's talent hub.

"The Leinster academy starts long before anyone officially joins. It starts when people like Joey Carberry's parents make the decision to stick him in a car and bring him to mini rugby. The academy is just the end point of a journey that kids go on with the help of parents, teachers, schools, coaches and mentors over an eight-, 16- and 20-year period."

Smyth also believes that the success achieved by Irish rugby in the late 1990s and 2000s played a big role in influencing the players of today. They grew up watching their heroes achieve success on the international stage and dreamed about emulating them.

The schools rugby system is invaluable too; it's well-resourced, coached and organised. The standard and precision of the operation is top-class and the volunteerism that goes with it is remarkable.

And while a combination of factors over a long period of time has resulted in a critical mass of players coming through from the province, the big challenge isn't what's happening now but what is going to happen in the future.

Along with Smyth, Trevor Hogan is also tasked with keeping a watchful eye on the next generation. Last year David Nucifora, the IRFU performance director, established a role in each province for a talent coach and Hogan was appointed to that position in Leinster.

The nucleus of his job is to manage the pathway from the schools and the clubs, and have players on the radar for Smyth and the Academy. Essentially, it's a dream job that involves watching lots of rugby games, at schools and club level.

He will identify players; work with them through the schools structures that are already in place. Then after a series of trials the selected players will form the Leinster schools panel for the Inter-pros and those who don't get selected are still on the data base to be monitored and supported. From there, it's on to the Academy or else club rugby, all under the watchful eye of Leinster's network of coaches.

Both Hogan and Smyth are former Leinster players, a second-row and a hooker respectively. And while they are contrasting in the physical stakes, they are singing off the same hymn sheet when it comes to Leinster rugby. They work side by side, because without one the other couldn't function. Hogan starts with kids who are 16 and works right through till 21 while Smyth starts with the older group and works down.

The ultimate aim is that Leinster win more Champions Cups and they have to provide the manpower for that. Sixteen of the 23 players who helped beat Wasps came through the Academy but there is a bigger picture too.

"A large part of what we concentrate on is getting people to play the game," says Hogan. "It's very hard to project beyond two years where a player will be so the big focus for us is getting more and more people playing rugby and appreciating the values of what Leinster are about. Then using that to drive the game and drive enjoyment, the knock-on consequence of all that will hopefully help the senior team."

A bit like the All-Blacks they want to develop the person as well as the player, build character and teach youngsters humility, leadership and respect.

They want the players to focus on self-improvement and learning. They believe that there is a responsibility on those in the game to help grow it, play it in the right manner and pass traditions on.

Both Hogan and Smyth are qualified teachers, their communication skills are excellent and so is their awareness of the difficulties facing young athletes. They have seen their fair share of players with all the talent necessary and resources at their disposal not make it to the professional ranks.

And while the long game is identifying and developing players for future positions there are too many variables to consider so they prefer to adopt a more holistic approach to what they do.

"When you are looking at it from the bottom up you are trying to develop as many players as possible," says Smyth.

"Because if we make a decision on a 15-year-old the chances of us getting that position right when they hit 22 or 23 are minuscule. So you have to be helping masses of guys because you could be an injury away or it might not happen for you."

But of course there is pressure in their roles too; it's a different type of pressure to what's felt in the run-up to competitive games. Out of a squad of approximately 45, Leinster can sign four overseas players so 41 have to be home-grown. This results in constant worry that someone might fall through the cracks.

"I'm always thinking, 'Who am I missing, is there someone out there that I haven't spotted'," says Hogan.

"The reality is you are not going to see everyone but you'd hope to create a framework so for the ones you don't see there is a way for them to come back into the system. You always hear stories of late developers and lads who never made development squads so there is that worry all the time."

There is plenty of competition from other sports too. With the Dublin footballers aiming to win three All-Ireland championships in a row and Dublin hurling reaping the benefits of the blueprint it put in place in 2001, the popularity of Gaelic games in the capital is ever-increasing. Also in the coming years Dublin GAA are expected to locate their centre of excellence at the Spawell site in very close proximity to Terenure and Templeogue, areas that have been for a long time rugby country.

"Instead of saying we are in competition with GAA or soccer, we say we are in competition to make rugby as good as we can to make it. So it's a good alternative for school kids to play it. But the reality is people in Ireland will always play rugby, soccer, hurling and football," says Hogan.

"I think that people involved in the different organisations are just trying to make their game the best game it can possibly be so kids want to participate in it. The talented kid is going to be wanted by four or five organisations anyway."

Today for Leinster in France getting the win is all that matters but a survey of the players lining out in the blue jersey will show just how much work is being done from the ground up. That grassroot success will undoubtedly yield more at the top level. A lot done, a lot more to do.

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