THERE HAVE BEEN some dark days for Ireland’s scrum over the years, with 2012 in Twickenham a hurtful memory for Irish rugby, but all the signs indicate that the depth of front row players is no longer a major concern.
That memory of England’s demolition of the Irish scrum on St. Patrick’s Day six years ago has faded, with good reason.
Tadhg Furlong is among the finest tightheads in the world game, while the likes of John Ryan and Andrew Porter are providing competition behind him.
On the loosehead side, Cian Healy, Jack McGrath and Dave Kilcoyne currently lead the way, but there is further quality within the provinces.
Rory Best continues to deliver as Ireland captain but Munster’s Niall Scannell looks like a fine long-term replacement and others such as Sean Cronin and Rob Herring are important parts of the depth chart.
With more promising front-row talent coming through the underage ranks, Irish rugby has done a fine job since that March day in 2012.
Ambrose Conboy is the current Ireland U20s scrum coach and has worked with national scrum coach Greg Feek in the IRFU’s elite scrummaging programme since 2012. The Connacht man has seen first-hand how this growth has taken place.
“You look at the strength in depth in Irish rugby and even the strength in depth here [with the Ireland U20s] – it’s coming slowly but surely,” says Conboy.
“I think it can be seen with the senior squad. Look at the tighthead prop situation we were in going back to… people always talk about England in 2012 on Paddy’s Day.
“That was a serious situation for us but there have been structures put in place to make sure that never happens again. They’re in place now and they’re going to be continued with Greg here.”
Conboy, who is also an elite player development officer for Connacht’s academy, highlights the position specific skills [PSS] sessions that take place in the western province and elsewhere once a month as part of the growth.
Those sessions see senior coaches working with young props on their scrummaging skills in detail, while other forwards might develop their lineout skills in another session.
Conboy is a former Galwegians RFC captain who was teaching Geography and Maths at ‘The Bish’ in Galway up until three years ago – “no summer holidays” has been the only downside of stepping full-time into rugby, he jokes.
Having coached Connacht Juniors, guiding them to an inter-pro title in 2012, he moved into the Connacht academy set-up, working with young players and bringing a particular focus to the area of the scrum.
He is now coaching some exciting front-row talent in the Ireland U20s squad and he rates tightheads Tom O’Toole, Jack Aungier and Joe Byrne as “really strong prospects,” while also pointing out that there is better depth at hooker this year in the shape of Ronan Kelleher, Diarmuid Barron and Eoghan Clarke.
Jordan Duggan has been the starting loosehead for the U20s so far in the current Six Nations and his experience of playing Ulster Bank League rugby with Naas RFC has certainly stood to him.
Though the club game in Ireland is generally underappreciated, Conboy sees it as a key part of any prop’s learning curve.
“I spoke to Finlay Bealham about this recently and said ‘how did you find your progress?”
“Because I remember looking at Finlay out in Corinthians and going ‘Jesus, if he’s the prospect, we should maybe be a little bit worried.’
“But there’s probably only one way you really learn, and Finlay would say this himself, you need to experience it and not in a positive way. You need to get out there, there’s no other way.
“You’re probably better off playing Junior matches if you want to be a tighthead prop because you’re going to get experience of a fella who is going to try to bend you over and turn you backwards in any way that’s possible.
“There are plenty of bad props who became good because of experience. It’s a learning curve that’s steep for them and thankfully they’re getting it earlier and earlier.”
While Conboy is focused on developing the next generation of Ireland’s front row talent – he expects the real growth to be evident at this summer’s World Rugby U20 Championship – his own development as a coach is an interesting story.
Conboy spent some time in New Zealand around four years ago, linking up with then Highlanders coaches Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown, as well as Graham Henry, John Kirwan and the Blues in Auckland.
Ambrose coached alongside Brown’s brother, Cory, with the Connacht Juniors, while Pat Lam linked him to Henry, with whom he spent an insightful day in Auckland.
Though the six-week trip was valuable as Conboy’s coaching career got going, he says he didn’t come away with the revelations some might expect.
“It’s strange because you go over there expecting to learn something phenomenal and new, but more so it was reinforcement that you’re doing a lot of the new things,” says Conboy.
“A big thing for me going over there was language – you’d often hear ‘spaces, not faces’ and that kind of thing from underage levels in Ireland but down in Dunedin they spoke about ‘getting the edge.’
“How can you get the edge – whether it’s the edge of the man or the edge of the pitch, to stretch them? That was one of the things that came up. It was that kind of language because it’s just the same thing painted up differently, isn’t it?
“The strange thing being there is the little amount of time they put into defence. We’d be far more defence-oriented, it’s 50% of the game essentially, but they put so little of their time into defence.
“It wasn’t just about chucking the ball about, it wasn’t ‘jouez,‘ but it was really more so about getting that attacking side of it and getting the fundamentals right. It was that Brazilian mentality of ‘we’ll score more than you.’”
Conboy says Nigel Carolan, now the Connacht attack coach, has been a major influence on his career, while he has gained important knowledge from working closely with Feek around the scrum.
“Greg has that mentality about him where everything is cool and calm, the laidback New Zealand mentality, which I like,” says Conboy.
“He’s the sort of guy who you can call and throw him one video clip and he’ll come back with 100 things, but then focus you on one thing. His knowledge is far superior. His laptop is slow but the information that’s on it is exceptional! He’s been a real mentor.”
There is plenty of talent for Conboy and his fellow Ireland U20 coaches to work with this year, although it’s a shame that just one Connacht player, Sean Masterson, is part of the squad.
Given that he works with the players coming through in Connacht, Conboy is better placed than most to comment on this poor representation.
The natural cycle of players is part of it, while there were injuries to several Connacht candidates to make the U20s set-up, but Conboy is more concerned about training facilities in the province.
“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 is I look at the 4G pitch, then turn around and look at another 4G pitch.
You go down to Connacht and there’s not a single one. Even the GAA up here [in Dublin] have 100 plus pitches that are 4G, as far as I know. There are zero in Connacht.
“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.”
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