Monday 25 March 2019

Tony Ward: Win or lose, Leinster have raised the bar in developing young players

Recent success built on incredible schools and academy system which other provinces must look to replicate

Leinster star Joey Carbery. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster star Joey Carbery. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

No doubt there's an expression for it but when you grow up with something it's very hard to contemplate anything different. As one fortunate to attend a rugby-playing school, and despite its small size, one of the best at that, I was inducted into the schools system at a tender age.

The thrill of going along to Donnybrook, or to Lansdowne every occasional year, cannot be overstated in terms of its impact and influence on young rugby players in Leinster.

The desire to be on that field of dreams just a short bike ride from D6 was overwhelming. I guess I had the best of both as I was fanatical about my soccer outside of school too.

But for wannabe rugby players of this generation, with the incentive of a professional career, the magnetic lure is even greater again.

Having played, coached and administered the game for the best part of six decades, I think I am fairly well placed to assess why Leinster rugby is where it is just now and to debunk the myths of privilege that no longer apply.

Show me a Leinster player and I'll show you a lad who has worked his guts out to get where he is. It's the same in hurling, football, soccer or almost any other individual or team game you care to name - the principle of dedicated sacrifice is entirely the same.

Those who still denigrate rugby as entirely a game of privilege haven't a clue. There was a time when it was elitist and we can't pretend otherwise. I was lucky to get the opportunity I did and with it came the chance to play a game that was alien to me and to my home environment growing up at that time.

We had too the advantage of dedicated coaches, almost entirely men of the cloth, who lived for the game and its development. The fall-off in vocations, allied to increasing demands on lay teachers, has seen a transformation in coaching structures.

Talk to any headmaster or headmistress and they will tell you of the great difficulty in getting a teacher/coach for the one teaching post. Where once extra-curricular involvement came as part of the working package, in general that is no longer the case. Of course, there are still teachers who coach and they are worth their weight in gold but they are very much in the minority and an ever-declining species at that.

Of necessity what we have instead is a quality of coaching on a par with the game at the highest level in this country, given that the coaches are largely drawn from the same pool. That and the involvement of Academy players in the underage coaching system (generally with their old schools) sees a standard of coaching and organisation that's growing in quality by the year.

But that too can be a double-edged sword unless kept in check. In specific terms, what I mean is that outside coaches shouldn't be given carte blanche to indoctrinate youngsters in the same rigid systems applicable to senior rugby, whether club or provincial. My other concern is the increasing emphasis on fast-tracking.

The rush to identify talent is resulting in far too many players being called for screening through a whole host of representative teams and in the screening process the value of the honour is being lost, while youngsters are also getting distorted notions about their playing ability much too soon.

But the bottom line is a schools system - and while I hate using the term a production line - that's at least the equal if not better than any comparable system of development anywhere in the world. Just recently the English Institute of Sport visited St Michael's in an attempt to uncover why it is they have produced so many professional players for Leinster in recent times.

They could have visited a whole host of other schools just as easily and I emphasise that point. Not for a minute am I ignoring youth rugby; indeed so many learn the basic skills through the minis prior to entering secondary school. But the game in the schools is at a different level in almost every respect.

For every Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour, Dan Leavy or James Ryan, there is another lorry load on the way and because of the ultra-competitiveness of the schools competitions there will never be room for complacency.

Yes, it is built on history and tradition but, irrespective of what school takes the silverware in any given year, so long as Leinster Rugby and specifically the Academy through Peter Smyth, Trevor Hogan, Simon Broughton, Hugh Hogan and Noel McNamara continue to maintain that perspective and balance then occasions like today in Bilbao will always be a realistic part of the Leinster rugby agenda.

Irrespective of the outcome, and clearly we hope for that fourth star, success is cyclical. The French and English clubs will continue to dangle juicy financial carrots as a quick route to success, that is a fact of life, but given the Leinster system and standards set, Leinster will consistently be there or thereabouts.

And there is no reason why Ulster and Munster should not be able to replicate the fundamentals of the system in Leinster.

For Connacht, despite growing interest in the schools, there is much groundwork still to be done. We are not comparing like with like so given the structures currently in place what has been achieved in recent years, most notably under Pat Lam, has been quite remarkable.

Win or lose in Bilbao, we can take great comfort in what we have. The challenge is in getting the other three to a comparable level.

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