Wednesday 26 September 2018

'Two or three per cent of each year go professional at the moment' - How one school has become Irish rugby's biggest production line

Luke McGrath (left), Dan Leavy (centre) and James Ryan (right) during their days playing for St Michael's College.
Luke McGrath (left), Dan Leavy (centre) and James Ryan (right) during their days playing for St Michael's College.
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

Not long after the final whistle blows on a Saturday, the following week begins.

By that evening, the players will have access to footage of the game online. The next day, the footage will have been broken down into different sections – possession from lineouts, scrums, restarts, turnovers, how the attack and defence fared. A statistical report for players with some feedback from the coach comes next.

There is a database where each player's on-pitch and strength and conditioning areas to improve are logged, so the squad can see where everyone must get better.

Monday morning at 7am sees half the squad in the gym – they will be there at the same time on Wednesday – while the other half work out on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, alternating each week.

Monday lunchtime is the squad video review session where the weekend's game is broken down in more detail, with a 75-minute pitch session scheduled for that afternoon.

The traditional Wednesday game has been permanently replaced by the week's big pitch session, with the team training for 90-minutes before splitting into backs and forwards for another short video session.

Friday sees the second 75-minute training session of the week to fine-tune preparations for the following day, with the team having already walked through their moves at lunchtime.

Then comes Saturday, game day, where the team look to translate their meticulous preparation into a winning result.

This isn't Leinster's schedule in their UCD complex or Ireland's Six Nations preparation at Carton House: welcome to elite schools rugby, where St Michael's College – just off Ailesbury Road in south Dublin – are producing professional rugby players at a near unprecedented rate in Irish rugby history.

"There are a lot of guys in our school who believe they are going to be professional and the bizarre thing is that 2% or 3% of each year actually do go professional at the moment," St Michael's Director of Rugby Andy Skehan says of the 600-pupil school, of which 415 play rugby.

"The way it is laid out at St Michael's is not that different to a professional set-up so when they make the step up, it is not that big in their head. They are used to the early mornings, the reviews, the medicals. Some other lads who aren't used to that might find it difficult and fall away or might not be aware of what that step actually is."

Currently there are ten St Michael's past pupils in the Leinster senior squad – Noel Reid, Dan Leavy, Nick McCarthy, Luke McGrath, James Ryan, Ross Byrne, Rory O'Loughlin, Max Deegan, Ross Molony and Cathal Marsh - and a further four in the academy, with two more plying their trade in Connacht.

It's not just that St Michael's have a large professional contingent – Blackrock, Methodist College and Pres Cork have supplied Irish provinces with swathes of players for decades – but rather, how concentrated their arrival into top level rugby has been.

Besides Reid, who left school in 2008, the other nine rising Leinster stars graduated this decade and the school has provided the last six captains of the Ireland U20 team.

Skehan is at the top of a structure that came about following a strategic review around ten years ago after the school won their first Senior Cup, when internal meetings were held to discover why ex-Leinster wing Simon Keogh was the only former pupil playing professional rugby.

It was decided to put more emphasis on the Junior Cup team (St Michael's have played in eight of the last 11 finals) and as the rugby program evolved, to implement a unified coaching vision across the school, much like the All Blacks do with their Super Rugby sides, where every team plays the same way.

Skehan went from Junior Cup coach, to Senior Cup coach to Director of Rugby, a role he has held for five years now, while former Ireland internationals Brian O’Meara and Bernard Jackman have also coached the senior team in recent years.

Skehan says that as the school got more professional behind the scenes, the players thrived.

"When I played rugby, I don't really remember ever having a game plan," he says.

"These players have exact game plans that they expect, want and will execute on demand to the best of their abilities. It is all based on Leinster and Exeter is a big team for us as well.

"Our attack system is the same that the Chiefs use – our whole school's attacking system is based off that."

Skehan says one of his main goals is to run a rugby programme that gets as many pupils playing – and enjoying – the sport as possible.

He keeps an open line of communication with coaches in each year so that he can keep tabs on players who might blossom in the future.

One benefit open to Skehan and his fellow coaches currently is that they can lean on their former players for information on how one of the world's best teams does their business.

"The trickle-down effect from Stuart Lancaster at Leinster has been massive with the seminars he has put on," Skehan says.

"And because we have so many players in there, they are willing to tell us pretty much everything they are told."

The St Michael's Director of Rugby is quick to point out that the pursuit of rugby excellence hasn't been sought at the expense of academics – over the last few years the average Leaving Cert score for senior cup players has been over 510 points.

With players now demanding detailed, hands-on coaching, it has required those taking charge of teams to have far more than a love of the game in their arsenal.

St Michael's now have two all-weather pitches, one of which is based on the Donnybrook back pitch, and a top class gym, and Skehan, as well as the players, won't settle for coaches overseeing the preparation not knowing their stuff.

"There was a time maybe 15 years ago where a coach would come out on the pitch and have a chat with their assistant on the way up [to plan training]," Skehan says.

"That is not acceptable and we wouldn't have that. Everything is planned by the minute and we have an air horn at training to keep us on time. There is a two-minute warning that tells us that the exercise is almost finished and then an end horn that signals that it's time for the next exercise. The idea of an enthusiastic adult who wants to be involved in sport, it doesn't really work in these environments, particularly at the higher end of it."

It shows just how competitive the Leinster Schools Senior Cup is that despite becoming close to a professional rugby factory since 2010, St Michael's have only lifted the trophy once since then (2012).

As the man at the top, Skehan – who also coaches UCD in the AIL - deserves plenty of credit for the St Michael's surge but is also the lightning rod when things don't pan out come cup time.

"I generally get all the hassle, not the credit," he laughs.

"If friendly matches are lost in here, there are parents giving out.

"Last year after the Colours game between UCD and Trinity, I went into the bar afterwards and some guy decided that this was an opportunity to have a cut off me for St Michael's not winning the schools cup."

Far from taking a step back to admire the achievements of his former players, Skehan is bullish that there are plenty more future professionals coming through the school now, which can further his goal of having St Michael's men permeate every single Irish squad.

"There are a number of players here at the moment who I would be surprised if they don't make it," he says.

"I could go down as far as second year and pick out players who I think might do it.

"One of our stated goals is that we want representation in every national and provincial squad – U18, U19, U20, senior, A team, Ireland Sevens.

"We are more or less there, except maybe Ireland sevens."

He would love to pick up a few more Senior and Junior Cups - and ranks the current senior team as likely favourites in 2018 - but Skehan has more far-reaching goals for his rugby program that even surpass the objective of total Irish representation.

It might be a stretch to say he eyes world domination, but Skehan certainly wants to measure St Michael's against any and every rugby production line around the globe.

"We absolutely love playing foreign opposition because it is a chance to benchmark us and see what they are doing," he says.

"We are aware of Grey College, Wellington College, Auckland Grammer, Christchurch Boys. We are always looking at all of that, seeing how many players they have, what’s the depth of their program, is it only a first team - we are interested in schools rugby around the world."

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