Tuesday 23 January 2018

Academy focus has given solid platform for future

Former Munster player Doug Howlett with Patrick Coveney (CEO Greencore) and Tom Barry (Chairman Greencore Munster Academy)
Former Munster player Doug Howlett with Patrick Coveney (CEO Greencore) and Tom Barry (Chairman Greencore Munster Academy)

MUNSTER found out at first hand how difficult keeping up with the Joneses can be in Marseille last month, but spending big to chase European champions Toulon is not on the agenda.

Instead, the province needs to be smart to stay at European rugby's top table and investing in their academy is one way of doing this.

Since the 2008 Heineken Cup final win, Munster have seen a huge turnover in players as that famous generation hung up their boots, leaving Tony McGahan and Rob Penney to turn to youth.

The likes of Peter O'Mahony, Dave Kilcoyne, Conor Murray, Dave Foley and Tommy O'Donnell have led the charge to the latest European semi-final – all home-grown talents who have taken on the mantle.

Producing home-grown talent is central to Munster's plans and last Saturday, before the Pro12 meeting with Ulster, a lunch was held at Thomond Park to announce Greencore's sponsorship of the academy for the next three years.

The investment of the company, who have joined forces with 20 individual investors and the Munster Rugby Supporters' Club, will help drive the academy's progress forward over that period and manager Peter Malone says the impact is being felt already.

QUALITY

"There's always improvement to be made, we're never happy with where we are," he explains.

"We've produced a lot of players for Munster over the last three years, we've a young age profile in the senior squad and we've pushed a lot of players in. We're going to challenge the quality of those players over the next couple of years, to really start pushing some top-class professionals into challenging for first-team rugby at a younger age.

"We seem to be getting very good numbers in the Ireland U-20 squad, which means we're catching up with the other provinces and really starting to get a higher number of high-quality young guys into age-grade squads and, hopefully, push into Munster squads over the last two or three years.

"The number of players in U-19, U-20s squads was a small little marker that we had a bit of catching up to do. We're happier with that number now and we're happy that that is a mark of the progress we've made."

Greencore chief executive Patrick Coveney explained that the company would not only be providing money, but also work placements, mentorships and nutritional support to the next generation of Munster players.

It will, says Coveney, a member of Munster's commercial board, boost both those players who are destined for greatness and those who don't make it to the top level.

"It's the guys who don't become superstars who will benefit the most from the leadership skills, the mental and physical development that's part of what Peter is doing," he explained.

"Whether you end up being Conor Murray or someone who steps away from professional rugby three years later, in both cases you get a very good experience from it.

"The second thing we were trying to do is to use this as a way of setting up a series of models for funding professional rugby in Munster.

"The truth is, for Munster to continue at the top table of European rugby we're going to need a lot more money.

"That's the reason we have the commercial board and Doug Howlett working on creating five or six different routes, of which the academy was one, where private sector people with a connection to Munster can channel investment into Munster."

Last week, Murray collected Munster's player of the year award just three years after leaving the academy.

Now a Lion and Ireland's first-choice scrum-half, the Patrickswell native is a prime example of what academy products can achieve.

"They probably took their guidance off senior guys like Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan and James Coughlan, but now they have the maturity themselves," Malone said of the likes of Murray and captain O'Mahony.

ABILITY

"They had to have the ability, but they also had to be mature and take the information on board. These weren't kids thinking they had to do it all, they were coming in with an attitude, respecting the guys around them.

"Now Pete's the captain, Conor's a Lion, player of the year and an experienced international at 24. That's a good thing for Munster as a whole and for the academy guys today.

"They can look at those guys as an example as to it not only being about what you do on the pitch, it's about the sidelines as well, your values and what it takes to play for your province."

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