Saturday 21 April 2018

'We’re doing hundreds of things simultaneously' - Meet the man in charge of Leinster's conveyor belt

The man in charge of the Blues’ production line, Peter Smyth, reveals the ethos and methods behind province’s incredibly successful nursery

Peter Smyth (left), head of the Leinster academy and Joey Carbery (right).
Peter Smyth (left), head of the Leinster academy and Joey Carbery (right).
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The morning after Leinster had demolished Wasps at the Aviva Stadium, more than 500 children assembled at Old Belvedere for the club's minis' end-of-season party.

There to meet them were Charlie Rock, Will Connors, Jimmy O'Brien and Jeremy Loughman - four members of the province's Academy, who along with Ireland assistant coach Andy Farrell put the youngsters through their paces.

Having watched the province go for glory the day before, they were all dreaming of the same thing. For the Belvo kids it's a distant possibility but for the quartet of aspiring professionals, it is within touching distance. The circle of Leinster life in full bloom.

Sixteen of the 23 players who roundly beat the English table-toppers in front of more than 50,000 people the previous afternoon came through the Academy.

The player factory at UCD is the province's response to the big bucks being spent elsewhere. It costs around €2m a year to run, but the return on investment is there for all to see.

Of the 81 players capped by Joe Schmidt during his time as Ireland coach, 30 (37pc) started their professional career with Leinster.

Peter Dooley. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Peter Dooley. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile


Drawn largely from the traditional schools but increasingly supplemented by club players from the wider province, it is a production line like no other.

At the top of the tree, the results are strong. Having come into the senior coaching set-up in September, Stuart Lancaster has been impressed.

"When all the internationals are away, I'm working with all of these 18, 19 and 20-year-olds and I'm looking at them and thinking 'wow, I can't wait for him to make his debut'. The pipeline of talent in this area is fantastic," Lancaster told Newstalk last week.

Joey Carbery, Peter Dooley and James Tracy (pictured) have come through the academy to the Leinster senior team. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Joey Carbery, Peter Dooley and James Tracy (pictured) have come through the academy to the Leinster senior team. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Leinster is in a strong position to produce players. Anchored in Dublin and with a playing population that is almost double that of its provincial rivals, the conditions are favourable.

The province don't wait for the players to come through, however; their work begins spotting talent at a young age and identifying where the gaps in the senior squad are coming from a long way out.

Read more: Sexton: Leinster 'worlds apart' this season

Under the watchful eye of Academy manager Peter Smyth, they work with club and schools coaches throughout the province's 12 counties to try and ensure that no prospective player is missed, and use their underage squads to begin nurturing them towards the senior game.

Smyth explains that, since January, he and his team have been scouring the various club and schools tournaments to check out the next generation.

The Leinster academy manager Peter Smyth. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
The Leinster academy manager Peter Smyth. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

The best of those players have been brought into camps where the coaching staff will focus on one key issue at a time. One week they might test their leadership credentials, another their core skill-sets and so on.

A player might come in as a back-row, but the coaches will see that his future lies elsewhere. Ireland hooker James Tracy was once as a prop, loosehead Peter Dooley played at No 8.

"It's all linked into the senior squad, where the pressure points are coming in Leinster Rugby, in Irish rugby," Smyth explains. "It's not that we're doing one thing, we're doing hundreds of things simultaneously to try and grow the game, talent-ID players and getting players into our rep' system.

"So, when you start going through the pathway, you could be playing club or school, you could be on the Leinster U-18s team, the Youths or the Schools, move on to Leinster U-19s where the two streams come together, Leinster U-20s, Ireland U-20s, where suddenly people are looking at you and making decisions about your suitability for professional rugby."

Once they come out of school, prospects don't automatically graduate to the full Academy, which has 22 places grant-funded by the IRFU and includes players who are just out of the U-20 grade to senior internationals like Joey Carbery, who will go on to a full contract next season.

Below that tranche of players are 35 sub-academy players, some of whom will take the places of the large batch of Academy graduates next season. They are based in Donnybrook and are supported by IRFU-resourced nutritionists, strength and conditioning (S&C) trainers and the Leinster staff.

As they make the transition from school to university and professional life, the province looks to make life easier for them, even taking them to the local supermarket to show them how to identify the right products.

"What the schools and clubs are putting into Leinster Rugby is irreplaceable in terms of facilities, 4G pitches, coaching, the fixture list and that's a huge strength of Leinster," Smyth says.

"It's be wrong to say that they come along to the Academy and we do this, this and this… The Academy is really about trying to put the finishing touches on all of that great work.

"When a guy leaves school, it's a difficult transition. It's the first time leaving a structured environment and they have to make a decision about third level education, where they'll play rugby… they have a lot of hurdles.

"We spend a lot of time helping guys with that transition and smoothing that way for them.

"The further a guy is identified, the more you'd focus on their S&C, nutrition, skill development, where does he sit in the succession planning of the province, any extras he needs in terms of education or things like that.

"We'd come in and say 'right, this guy has the talent to keep progressing forward, so what do we feel he needs to keep progressing forward?'.

"It's not an exact science. Each of them requires different things at different stages. They're young men -their contemporaries are in college, they're inter-railing around Europe or going on J1s, while they're involved in a professional work-place.

"It can be some change from the routine of school, to getting up at this time, having to eat now, rest now; it's a Wednesday night - student night - and I can't go out because I'm due on the pitch and have to perform tomorrow.

"It's a difficult time for anyone, but when you're involved in high-end sport it magnifies it.

"There's no individual way, every player will have their strengths and personality. You're inducting them into an environment with 45 senior professionals, a big support staff and then 20 guys who are starting their pathway and hopefully getting all the way to a green jersey.

"It's just inducting them into the life of being a professional rugby player, putting those values into them, showing them how to be self-sufficient and how to look after themselves on and off the pitch."

All of which feeds into their on-pitch performance and ability to one day cope and thrive at the highest level.

Part of that comes from being integrated into senior training.

"If your only experience of playing rugby is Schools Cup or underage representative and you suddenly find yourself up against Isa Nacewa or scrummaging against Sean Cronin… you can't teach young players that in a training session together, they can only get those experiences when they're with the senior team," says Smyth.

"During international windows, when Leo (Cullen) needs extra players for pitch sessions, that gives the Academy lads a better chance to realise that's the standard - 'he's a top player, that's the way he trains and prepares'.

"It's like their work experience: they can do all of the S&C and play their different levels, but when they get out there on the senior pitch they realise that that's the level that they need to get to. It's massive for us.


"It's one of the great things about Leo, that he integrates the young lads so much into the senior schedule and squad. It's not just a case of one day there's a big bang and they're exposed to this, it's very much a gradual exposure over the whole season."

Although Leinster A's British & Irish Cup campaign ended earlier than usual this year, the conveyor belt shows no signs of slowing down. As Garry Ringrose, Carbery and Adam Byrne get used to life at the top, two stars of last year's U-20 World Cup, James Ryan and Andrew Porter, have been handed senior deals.

Max Deegan, player of the tournament last June, has seen Guinness PRO12 game-time, while Jordan Larmour, this year's star turn, is developing well.

Last weekend, Nick Timoney made his debut for Ulster and Conor Oliver was man of the match for Munster; both played on the same Blackrock College team as Carbery, but given the competition for Leinster back-row spots, they've had to look elsewhere.

"If someone leaves Leinster with a third-level qualification, an opportunity to play professional rugby with Leinster or elsewhere and they've grown or developed during their time here, that they've learnt good values and how to be a professional, learnt how to deal with people… I'd consider that a huge success," Smyth concludes.

"We measure success a number of different ways, but ultimately the measure of success is the Leinster senior professional team."

It seems like it's producing on all fronts.

Irish Independent

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