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Dropout danger as talented players have their rugby futures put on hold

Cian Tracey


IRFU head of elite player development, Peter Smyth. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

IRFU head of elite player development, Peter Smyth. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

IRFU head of elite player development, Peter Smyth. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Like every other sport in the country right now, rugby is facing major challenges on the back of Covid-19, and with no end point yet in sight, the knock-on effects will be felt for years to come.

While the professional game is providing some relief from the increasing levels of life’s daily pressures, the schools’ and club games remain at a halt.

For the IRFU, this throws up all sorts of problems, not least in terms of the National Talent Squad (NTS) programme, which has become the cornerstone for producing stars of the future.

Not every young player will be as naturally gifted or automatically drawn to rugby as say, James Ryan or Garry Ringrose, and with no games or proper on-field training programmes currently permitted to take place under Government restrictions, the IRFU are very mindful of the risks of teenagers turning away from rugby.

Those who are destined to earn an academy contract on the back of their natural talent will still find their way into provincial set-ups, but for the young players whose potential hasn’t yet been unlocked, there is a real fear that they could slip through the net.

“It’s a huge concern because even when you look at our national team, everyone knows the examples of late developers who have come through, who’ve had growth spurts late on or who have transitioned out of a school environment into another environment or just suddenly it’s clicked for them at various levels,” Peter Smyth, the IRFU’s head of elite player development, says.

“There’s been a drop-off rate in all sports going on 20 years. It hasn’t just been due to the pandemic and what’s going on.

“We know players come from every different element of Irish rugby, some come through Senior Cup, some come through the youth system.

“At one stage the AIL was turning out anywhere between two and four professionals a year who were going into provinces so we can’t afford to have dropouts at any rate.”

The IRFU is also facing the prospect of young players having their heads turned by other sports such as soccer and Gaelic games, particularly those from rural backgrounds which are not necessarily rugby strongholds.

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“It’s a good point and there’s been some good examples,” Smyth maintains.

“David Hawkshaw played minor hurling with Dublin, played against that very good Limerick team in Croke Park. Obviously Conor Nash was someone I met several times down in Navan before he took the opportunity and went to Hawthorn.

“All you can do with anyone is build a connection, a solid relationship and just show them the opportunities you can provide to them in your sport.

“There are plenty of examples of other sports that have been successful at transfer of talent. It’s something we’re heavily looking at in rugby because we want to maximise every single pathway we have in Irish rugby to produce the best players we can for all the age-grade and international sides.”

There are currently 67 players enrolled in the province’s four Academy systems, with 80-85pc of those predicted to go on and earn professional contracts.

Normally at this time of year, the Senior and Junior Cups would be in full flow, while the U-20s Six Nations would offer supporters a chance to see some of the best talent the country has to offer.

Without such games to judge players on, anxiety levels amongst young hopefuls are rising, but the IRFU is keen to allow as much time as possible to allow them a chance to prove themselves before decisions around academy contracts are finalised.

“Unfortunately for a lot of guys, they are in a holding pattern,” Smyth admits.

“So, we are trying to keep as many people as live and viable options for as long as we can over the next six to 12 months to be fair to everyone.

“Are we potentially going to miss a player because of this?

"We’d be naive to think there wouldn’t be the odd example but it’s limiting that damage across the whole of our system as best we can.

“Is it going to take some of this next generation who could end up being Irish internationals longer? Yes, in my opinion it will because they won’t have had access to those top-level games at 18, 19.”

Smyth insists the IRFU do not intend to introduce a central academy system, but he acknowledges that more movement of young players between provinces is inevitable.

“It’s always the case, ultimately, that players will seek the best opportunity to play the game.

"The system is there to provide players with the resource and abilities to maximise their talent and provide them with playing opportunities.

“After that, it’s up to the player to see where those best opportunities are for him.”

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