Thu 31 Jan 2019 | 11:11

What makes Ireland's rugby system great

What makes Ireland's rugby system great
Thu 31 Jan 2019 | 11:11
What makes Ireland's rugby system great

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Ireland’s rise to number two in world rugby on the back of a Six Nations Grand Slam, and a historic home win over world champions New Zealand, is no accident but the fruit of a perfect storm of factors coming together, starting in the nation’s schools.

The much vaunted central contracts – whereby the Irish Rugby Football Union pay the wages of around 15 players so they remain in Ireland and can dictate when they play – are the envy of many, including England head coach Eddie Jones.

However, for former Ireland great Tony Ward it is the school system that remains the cradle of success and, for him, is the best in Europe.

The 64-year-old former flyhalf can testify to that fact on the back of being director of rugby for fee-paying co-educational school St Gerard’s, in Bray, County Wicklow, south of Dublin.

“The schools’ importance to rugby at a higher level – provincial and national – is huge. It is the bedrock and has always been, and I think everyone accepts that,” Ward told AFP.

“It is the best system in Europe. We were lucky we always had the schools’ system and the provincial system [Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht] fitted so neatly into the professional game.

“Clubs, to some degree, have suffered in England going down the road of having owners.

“Wales have struggled with manufactured regions and some of those combinations there just have not worked.”

Ken Jolly, head of boys sport at St Gerard’s, is justifiably proud that the school punches above its weight as rugby tussles for talent, competing against Gaelic football, hurling and soccer.

One of the school’s former pupils is back-row forward Jack Conan who is part of the Ireland squad and an integral part of European champions Leinster’s team.

However, Jolly is concerned young players can be pushed too quickly.

“Our strength and conditioning coach Sami Dowling was part of the Leinster set-up,” Jolly told AFP.

“He is doing it specifically for our kids but different loading so the academies are getting in ready-made, conditioned players.

“My worry is there should be a four-year cycle but they are being pushed on straight into the province side without that development.

“I suppose it’s the pressure of keeping provinces alive and bringing players in when the others are away.”

Ward, capped 19 times and who inspired Munster to a historic win over New Zealand in 1982, said the level in schools is improving too due to the arrival of professional coaches.

“The game has moved on and the reason that has happened is more and more outside coaches who in general are club coaches,” he said.

“Provinces’ standards and cultures are seeping into the schools’ system more and more.”

Ward says size should not be a factor when the scouts from the provinces come calling.

“I think for them to be watching the Under-14s and Under-15s is too young,” he said.

“My personal complaint is they [scouts] still look very much at size and at 14 big guys stand out.

“Brian O’Driscoll was a good player at school ]Blackrock College] despite the exaggerated story he was not.

“That story came about because physically he was small.”

David Jones, head of strength and conditioning for boys at St Andrew’s School in Booterstown, near Dublin, told AFP the scouting system is such now they do not “miss a kid these days”.

Jones says there is now a system in place that should maintain the purple patch Ireland are enjoying on the pitch.

“It is top-down driven from there,” said Jones, whose school presently have the twinkle-toed Jordan Larmour and prop Andrew Porter in the Ireland squad.

“Michael Cheika, when he was at Leinster, revolutionised things and it has been continued by Joe Schmidt firstly at Leinster and then Ireland.

“Now there is a nice base of the pyramid, which has been made stronger at the bottom and the players progress as they move up, it is much more streamlined.”

However, while Ward muses wistfully of “how good could we be if we were like New Zealand”, Jones is mindful only a tiny percentage will become a Larmour or a Porter.

“New Zealand say better people make better players; our mantra is better students make better players.”

Agence France-Presse

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