The secret to Leinster's success
PLAY-OFF SPOTLIGHT: Leinster’s pursuit of a record fifth European Champions Cup is fuelled not by splashing out on stars, but scouting players such as Johnny Sexton and James Ryan when they are still at school.
For former Ireland flyhalf Tony Ward, it is a system without equal and a brilliant riposte to clubs such as three-time champions Toulon who sought continental glory by spending fortunes on players including Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau and Bakkies Botha.
The Dublin-based province, fresh from a third successive Pro14, title win, host defending champions Saracens on Saturday.
The English side, relegated from the Premiership after breaching salary cap rules, also boasts a thriving academy, which has produced internationals such as Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell.
They have, however, not been shy in spending to bring top talent to the club, adding centre Brad Barritt and World Cup winner Vincent Koch to their impressive roster
“I recall getting angry a few years ago when Toulon put three in a row together and Saracens won it twice in succession because of the way they went about it like football clubs with the most money,” Ward told AFP by phone.
“I remember comments went along the lines of ‘that is the end of the European Cup – it will be dominated by French and English teams as they have all the money’.
“I could not get a handle on those thoughts because if those making them had an inkling of the school system we have they would not be going down that road at all.”
The 65-year-old former dashing playmaker, capped 19 times by Ireland, knows the system inside out, having recently stepped back after 20 years as director of rugby at fee-paying co-educational school St Gerard’s, south of Dublin.
“What Leinster have done, and Munster to a certain degree, they have maximised the efficiency of transition from school through to their academy into the professional game and getting every inch out of it,” he said.
“They deploy a scouting system though they call it ‘screening’ from around the under-14 level. They are looking at these boys, identifying talent and watching their development.”
Ward, who inspired Munster to a historic win over New Zealand in 1982, does have slight reservations about one aspect of this development of talent.
“What I don’t like is what we are seeing is bigger, stronger more powerful lads coming out of school and instead of a four-year academy it becomes a two-year academy.
“James Ryan, Ryan Baird, both St Michael’s boys, and Andrew Porter physically so mature and ready to step into the Leinster team.”
‘High level of coaching’
Ward, who made one memorable appearance for the British and Irish Lions, scoring 18 points against South Africa in 1980, said the youngsters get their chance to be blooded because Leinster provides so many players to the Test set-up.
“I would add [former England coach, now the senior coach at Leinster] Stuart Lancaster has been a revelation since he came here,” said Ward.
“He is a perfect foil for [head coach] Leo Cullen, who has been amazing since he took over. Lancaster is the piece of the jigsaw that made all the difference.
“What they are doing is utilising the international window whereby they are losing a lot of players to Ireland and giving guys an opportunity on an ongoing basis during the year.
“This is based on how they train, the potential they see, the form in games and looking at certain positions they have to fill.”
Ward, the inaugural European player of the year in 1979, said Cullen’s side were not alone of the four provinces in using the schools system, Connacht being the exception, just they are more efficient at it.
“Leinster have an advantage in numbers over Munster and Ulster,” he said.
“However, added to that, they are better at maximising what they have got over the others and therefore don’t need to depend on investing in overseas talent.
“Stuart has been blown away by what he has seen in the schools here and the high level of coaching too.
“Leinster are in a very good place. There is no guarantee that they will win [against Saracens] but they are in a good starting position.”