Saturday 20 October 2018

'I come up to Dublin and sometimes I cry when I look at the schools' games in Donnybrook and the facilities'

Ireland U20 scrum coach Ambrose Conboy
Ireland U20 scrum coach Ambrose Conboy
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Over the last three years, Connacht have had just six different players named in the initial Ireland U-20s Six Nations squad. Of that six, one was a back.

Whatever way you look at it, the numbers aren't great from a Connacht point of view, and given that Sean Masterson is the Westerners' sole representative in this year's squad, the trend doesn't look like bucking any time soon.

Of the four Connacht players who trained with the senior squad at Carton House today, none came through the provincial system before going on to play for the Ireland U-20s.

Bundee Aki and Quinn Roux are of course overseas signings, Kieran Marmion came through the exiles system, while Ultan Dillane was overlooked at U-20s level.

On the pitch, Connacht's domestic season went from bad to worse last weekend when they were beaten at home by a Zebre side who claimed the double over Kieran Keane's men.

They do at least have a Challenge Cup quarter-final to look forward to, but even at that, playing in Europe's secondary competition is not where Connacht want to be.

For the last two years running, there hasn't been a single Connacht back included in an initial Ireland U-20s Six Nations squad. You have to go back to 2016 when scrum-half Stephen Kerins was involved, to find a Connacht back.

The playing numbers in the province are well short of what Leinster, Munster and Ulster have at their disposal, but even still, the knock on effect from the winning the PRO12 two years ago hasn't yet fully materialised.

To add to that, the school's game is significantly lagging behind, which is evident by the poor representation in the underage international squads.

Ambrose Conboy recently took a sabbatical as as a teacher in the Bish in favour of pursing a coaching career.

The current Ireland U-20s scrum coach also coached in the Galway school but they are without a Senior Cup title since 1994.

"I suppose the big thing for me, and I've been involved in schools rugby back in Connacht as well, there's a big cycle on that," Conboy maintains.

"So you kinda get a big batch together and then you don't get as great a batch together, and that's probably one of the most frustrating things."

In the likes of Leinster and Munster, the cycles that Conboy rightly refers to, often apply to specific schools rather than the province as a whole.

But the problems in Connacht are far more deep rooted than just the player pool, as Conboy outlines.

"In Connacht, the biggest thing they lack is facilities," he explains.

"I come up to Dublin and sometimes I cry when I look at the schools' games in Donnybrook because it's phenomenal the amount of people and the second thing that makes me cry, even when there is no one in there, is I look at the 4G pitch, then I turn around and look at another 4G pitch.

"You go down to Connacht and there's not a single one. That in comparison to even, the GAA up here (in Dublin) have 100 plus pitches that are 4G, as far as I know. St Michael's have two. There are zero in Connacht.

"At the moment, Creggs are building a 3G pitch so it's not even a fourth generation.

"Connacht would train up in Mervue United which is basically an astro turf. It's not a contact surface. That's what you're dealing with.

"That's probably one of the biggest things that we need to address as a province. If we address that, you'll always get more quality coming through. The players are there, there's no doubt about that.

"They might not be of the numbers you get here in Leinster or Munster or Ulster, but the players are there. Even one fix within those facilities would make a massive difference to us.

"To run those PSS (position specific skills) nights on that surface, you know you're going to have to deal with howling wind and win, but at least if you have a good quality surface, you can get real value out of it."

When you scratch below the surface, you get a clearer idea of why Connacht are not producing as many U-20 internationals, and while there are other mitigating factors at play, at the moment, the outlook is not that great.

Considering a Dublin school can have a state of the art 4G surface, and the entire of Connacht can't, they are always going to be facing an uphill battle.

This year, they weren't helped by injuries, which might well have raised their representation in the U-20s squad above the minimum but even still, this has been a trend in recent years.

Nigel Carolan did an outstanding job with the Ireland U-20s and also with the Connacht Academy, while the early signs are that Conboy is an astute scrum coach.

But sooner or later, the powers that be out West are going to have to look from within and work out how they can improve the pathway from the school's game to the U-20s, and beyond.

Finding a way to invest in a 4g pitch would be a good start.

Independent.ie's U-20s Six Nations coverage is in association with PwC

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