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'Ireland could dominate for the next five, 10 years'

REACTION: Gregor Townsend’s observation that Ireland could dominate the game for “the next five, 10 years” is in no small part due to the schools system.

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The is the view of Irish great Tony Ward, shared with AFP in an interview.

The Scotland coach made his claim following the 14-36 World Cup hammering by the Irish last October.

On Saturday at Lansdowne Road Townsend will have a chance to test the claim as his side play Ireland, who are on the brink of a second successive Six Nations title.

Two shattering defeats – by New Zealand in the World Cup quarterfinal and then a revitalised England last weekend dashing their hopes of historic back-to-back Grand Slams – place a question mark beside the former Scotland flyhalf’s statement.

Ward, a dashing flyhalf in his pomp for Ireland winning 19 caps between 1978 and 1987, says the Irish schools system, especially in Leinster, is the best in Europe and “is a conveyor belt of talent”.

Ward has seen it at first hand having been for 20 years Director of Rugby at private school St Gerard’s, which produced among others Ireland and British and Irish Lions No.8 Jack Conan.

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“Townsend was undoubtedly referring to the school system,” Ward told AFP.

“Ireland will remain competitive for many years to come through the school system being so strong.”

Ward, who also performed the same role at another Leinster-based school St Andrews where Jordan Larmour and Andrew Porter of the present Ireland squad evolved, says Ireland’s pre-eminence in the sport is remarkable.

“I would make one very obvious point: we are only a tiny population,” said the 69-year-old.

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“Despite how well rugby is doing we are still the fourth team sport on the island, behind Gaelic football, hurling and soccer.

“What we are achieving is extraordinary, we are punching well above our weight because of the excellent system in place.”

Although Ward says rugby is gaining in popularity – “I look out the window and see many more boys throwing a rugby ball around” – Leinster and Ulster players largely come through the school system.

Munster has a strong club system whilst he says Connacht – “the Cinderella province” – has “come on in leaps and bounds” since the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) mulled over whether to shut it down as a professional entity to cut costs in 2003.

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‘Greatest achievement’

Ward, who also played for the British and Irish Lions, says there is no expense spared when it comes to investing in the schools rugby.

“The club coaches are also coaching in schools, they are brought in for better or for worse,” he said.

“I do say for better or for worse as the spontaneity and romanticism of the school game has been done away with.

“In the past, the Academy initially bridged the gap between school and the professional game, but it has effectively been written out.

“Players are coming out of school and going straight into the professional game due to the strength and conditioning in the school system.”

Ward, who was obliged to play rugby at his school in Dublin, St Mary’s, as his favourite sport football was not an option, says the lack of romanticism is reflected in the number of schools that can dream of winning the Leinster Cup.

“The rich are getting richer as the old boys networks club together and finance the facilities,” he said.

“It’s also getting to a stage where parents are choosing schools with an eye on their boys becoming professional rugby players and not because of the academic qualities of the establishment.”

Former Ireland and Lions fullback Hugo MacNeill would not go as far as Townsend in his prediction.

However, he told AFP Ireland will be “Six Nations title contenders” every year as no other country has a school system like Leinster’s in place and the intensity of the competition is a reason they are “the biggest supplier of players to the Ireland squad”,

How important schools rugby is to Ireland is summed up by MacNeill.

He may have been part of two Irish Triple Crown-winning teams (1982/85) but for him, there is no debate over his most memorable rugby moment – when he captained Blackrock to beat St Mary’s in the 1977 Leinster Senior Schools Cup.

“That was my greatest achievement.”

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