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Taking a road less travelled to the top

Player pathways can leave many prospects behind but Rugby Academy Ireland offers another shot at glory, writes Dan Van Zyl

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Dan Van Zyl is part of a project where hopefuls train full-time

Dan Van Zyl is part of a project where hopefuls train full-time

Dan Van Zyl is part of a project where hopefuls train full-time

Coming from a background where competition is fierce and opportunity limited, it takes courage, determination, sacrifice and belief in your own ability and luck to achieve your goal or to live out your dream on the rugby field.

Having arrived in Ireland in July 2002, I have seen a dramatic change in Irish rugby on a yearly basis to what is an extremely competitive environment today.

Schools rugby is the best it has ever been and the club game at youth and senior level is of a very high standard and constantly improving. That leaves the question: How many quality players can live out their dream of forging a career in rugby at the end of it?

When I was growing up in South Africa, it was every young kid's dream to play Currie Cup rugby as it was the top end of the game. Almost every Irish kid involved in rugby now wants to play for one of the provinces or become a professional player.

Opportunities are few and far between. Because of so many outside factors in the game, whether it is injury, selection, or a coach's perception of a player, many don't get the chance to see how good they can be. A different pathway that can potentially help them achieve their dreams is what we want to create.

I have seen the picture unfold in front of me from my days working in player and coach development for a long period of time, where a choice between players comes down to a vote. This was when I realised that there must be something we can do for the player missing out.

Rugby is very well run here but the nature of it all is that some will get chances and others won't. The player that gets selected is in the pathway, while in a lot of cases it is the end of the road for the one not selected. In the early years there was still an opportunity for the late developer, but with rugby in Ireland now being streamlined from 16 years of age through constant selection and deselection, those chances are few and far between.

I have an absolute passion for player development and a great belief in the guy that must fight a bit harder to achieve, as I can relate to that through my own career in sport. On a weekly basis there are many players in the AIL that just needed that opportunity earlier in their career and could have been a professional. With Rugby Academy Ireland, we want to give a different path to those players that missed out because of whatever reason.

Rugby Academy Ireland creates a pathway within Ireland but also from abroad, where players can effectively be in charge of their own route by us offering them very similar opportunities and the chance to be involved in a professional set-up on a daily basis.

They will get trained by high-quality coaches and be part of a programme that will concentrate on the fundamentals of the game through on and off-field activity.

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It will also offer them the chance to decide what they want to do in life if rugby doesn't work out. This will be done through a lifestyle and mental programme, as well as offering them time to study in strength and conditioning or other fields.

Life is about choice, but to make choices you must have opportunities. We feel we can provide that for school leavers who aren't sure what they want to do but are interested in or talented in rugby.

We will prepare players the best we can to stay involved in the sport, whether successful in playing or not, through contacts abroad and the programmes we run. We want to create another avenue away from the norm.

We realise that only so many players can make it and the numbers are small, but we want players to know that there are other avenues out there and the world is big, with rugby developing everywhere.

If you truly believe in your ability to succeed then there could be a place for you. If you don't try something you will never know. Take away that uncertainty!

Rugby Academy Ireland is Ireland's first full-time independent rugby academy, offering players that opportunity to enhance their rugby and lifestyle skills and to prepare them for a career in professional rugby.

The programme is geared towards school leavers on a full-board basis, but players can choose other options and RAI also provides transition year students with the opportunity to enhance their ability.

Where next for those players who weren't spotted by the right people at the right time? That is a question that can now be answered by enrolling into other academies. These academies offer the opportunity to enhance player training age and, in doing so, provide the chance to excel in a professional environment.

Players can ply their trade in the sport they have dedicated their time towards, and in doing so travel the world depending on their ability.

Rugby can now be the players' choice, and through independent academies they can open their own pathway, depending on how dedicated and determined they are.

Although tried and tested in the Southern Hemisphere, Rugby Academy Ireland is the first of its kind in the Northern Hemisphere where players get the opportunity to train full-time. This initiative looks set to grow as the desire of young men and women to play rugby at the top table increases.

Rugby Academy Ireland can create scouting opportunities for European and overseas markets as they don't have an affiliation or obligation to anyone bar the player. This opportunity is provided for both genders, although programmes are run separately.

By Dan Van Zyl of Rugby Academy Ireland, with Tony Ward

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