Dublin: 10°C Saturday 23 October 2021

'The dream would be to get someone from Tallaght or Clondalkin to play pro rugby'

The IRFU’s player pathway has been delivering positive results but there are still possible gaps.

WHEN TADHG FURLONG called in to see Leinster’s impressive new training facility in Donnybrook, officially named the Ken Wall Centre of Excellence, he turned to Dave Fagan and asked a simple question.

“It’s still going to be tough, Dave, isn’t it?”

Fagan, the head of strength and conditioning for Leinster’s sub-academy, smiled at Furlong’s worried expression and gave him a nod.

A fancy new gym, sure, but the school of hard knocks that is the sub-academy won’t be changing.

Source: McSport/YouTube

Fagan is one of the unsung heroes of Irish rugby, working outside the limelight to help develop players who become key figures for province and country. Furlong, James Ryan, Jordan Larmour, Andrew Porter, Josh van der Flier, Garry Ringrose and many others who before them will tell you all about how influential Fagan is.

The tough reality is that Leinster’s sub-academy is a weeding-out process, where players are pushed physically and mentally to see who really wants to take that next step into the professional game. A year or two under Fagan and the other sub-academy coaches can be the making of players, with those who pass the test advancing into the full academy.

Fagan rises at 4.45am most mornings to drive from Edenderry to Donnybrook, where he leads the latest crop of hopefuls in strength and conditioning sessions that are vitally important. Freezing cold mornings in the dead of winter are a litmus test of desire.

Fagan has been with Leinster for 23 years, including a 10-year spell with the senior team, but this sub-academy level is where he can add most value. The fact that Leinster’s sub-academy has a conversion rate of 85% into the professional game is a clear indicator that things have been going very well since it was formalised around 2007.

The excellent work Fagan and others in Leinster and Ireland are doing is highlighted in a fascinating recent study of Irish rugby’s so-called ‘player pathway’ by Dr. Liam Hennessy, the director of Setanta College in Thurles.

Hennessy was the IRFU’s director of fitness from 1999 until 2009, so he was ideally placed to investigate the last 30 years of this area of Irish rugby, more officially known as the ‘long-term player development’ [LTPD] plan.

Another influential figure behind the scenes, Hennessy’s view is that Irish rugby possesses a “world-class development pathway.” But there are challenges to be wary of.

The42 recently sat down with Hennessy and Fagan at Setanta College’s state-of-the-art SportsLab facility in Thurles, where there is a welcoming and familial atmosphere.

These are two men who care deeply about Irish rugby and their own field of work – which has been known as fitness, strength and conditioning, or athletic development depending on the era. 

Hennessy credits Stephen Aboud – formerly the IRFU’s head of technical direction and now in a similar role in Italian rugby – with kick-starting much of the work that eventually led into a formal player pathway.

“Steven was a visionary of what was clearly necessary for Irish rugby,” says Hennessy, pointing to how Aboud guided the IRFU towards putting in place a national academy in the mid-1990s, where the likes of Anthony Foley and Jeremy Davison developed.

dr-liam-hennessy-delivers-a-presentation-on-building-coaching-efficiency Hennessy is the director of Setanta College in Thurles. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

The union realised the importance of having such systems in place, particularly after the nightmare that was Lens in 1999, with Hennessy then centrally involved as the pathway become an official part of the IRFU’s work in the 2000s.

Mandatory four-week off-seasons and central contracts seem like sheer common sense now, but Hennessy looks back with gratitude that the IRFU got it right.

“We’ve been very lucky that there has been a central command that promotes the system, whereas in other countries it’s haphazard, a club will do what it wants to do,” says Hennessy, who is also the long-time fitness coach of Pádraig Harrington.

Fagan takes up the point:

“I remember Paul Wallace coming back to Leinster from Saracens limping, with one leg shorter than the other. He was after playing constantly from the 1997 Lions tour through to 2001 and he was a hobbling wreck.

“He played on for a few years and enjoyed it and played for Ireland but the stories he told me… he was destroyed by not being centrally contracted. Shane Horgan, Brian O’Driscoll, all those guys, had contracts that elongated their careers. Drico was 35 when he finished, Darce was 35 and Shaggy was 33 or 34, and all were in good nick.”

Hennessy’s research evaluated the success of the pathway in terms of performances by the national team, and that side of things has certainly been impressive.

From their dark days in the Five Nations in the 1990s, Ireland began to compete in the 2000s and won a Grand Slam in 2009. They’ve had a further three Six Nations successes in this decade, including another Grand Slam under Joe Schmidt.

But Hennessy was also keen to examine the success of the pathway through another lens – the effect of players’ game time being managed through the central system.

“People will talk about Triple Crowns or Grand Slams, but there’s more to it than that,” he explains. “If you’re player-centered and welfare is a key feature, there’s longevity to consider.”

Donnacha O’Callaghan and Peter Stringer playing until they were 40 serve as further good examples of what Irish rugby has been getting right, in Hennessy’s view, although his study delivered a finding that will certainly raise some eyebrows.

In short, players who completed a higher training workload in their late teen years and early 20s appeared to have greater longevity at the top end of the game.

“Donnacha and Peter, for example, played into their 40s and their workloads earlier on were far, far more than guys who didn’t last that long,” says Hennessy, a former international pole vaulter for Ireland.

“It was a direct relationship – the higher the workload for players earlier on, the longer they survived. The less work that was done, the shorter they survived.”

eric-elwood-and-dave-fagan Fagan [left] with the Ireland U20s in 2007. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It’s one reason why Hennessy and Fagan are motivated to see athletic development start as early as possible in schools and clubs – better equipping those who go on to pursue professional rugby for the physical rigours involved. ‘Training age’ is crucial, they feel.

As well as directly coaching sub-academy players, Fagan’s role with Leinster involves working with clubs and schools on this front, engaging S&C coaches to help them deliver better guidance to young players.

“If it’s a first- or second-year student starting an S&C programme, that’s about movement, quality of movement, and developing that ability,” says Hennessy.

“People have this perception, ‘Oh, you’re starting a first year lifting these big heavy weights, is that not wrong?’ It’s not that at all – it’s developing experience, learning how to be more comfortable in movement, learning the mechanics of running, getting up and down, that kind of quality of movement. It’s not about a one-rep max lift at all.”

Hennessy cites Fagan as an example of something else the player pathway in Irish rugby has got right – placing experienced S&C specialists into developmental roles, rather than always working with the elite senior teams.

He mentions Feargal O’Callaghan and Paudie Roche, both formerly of Munster, as other examples in this sense.

Fagan, having spent 10 years with Leinster’s senior team, felt somewhat stale in his role in 2007 and happily accepted Hennessy’s argument that some coaches’ skillsets and experience made them more suited to working with younger players in the pathway.

Fagan runs workshops within the Leinster schools system, as well as the regions outside Dublin, while also overseeing programmes for the province’s underage sides during the summer months.

He has as strong an insight into the quality of player and athlete coming through as anyone, and is therefore in a good position to expand on what Hennessy’s recent study highlighted as a possible gap in Irish rugby.

According to Hennessy’s figures, approximately 65% of current Ireland internationals have come through the Leinster system and many of them are from the same few schools.

“The worry I have is that the majority of our players come from two schools – St Michael’s and Blackrock,” says Fagan.

“We’ve got to have a system that caters for every eventuality. Our thing is to educate as many schools and clubs and regions as we can.

“The dream would be to get someone from Tallaght or Clondalkin to play professional rugby, to actually show it can happen. It should happen given those populations but we don’t maximise it yet.”

tadhg-furlong-celebrates Furlong was identified as a serious prospect at the age of 16. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Fagan points to examples like Furlong coming from Wexford, Ireland U20 back row Martin Moloney developing in Athy, and Offaly man Michael Milne proving himself in Roscrea as examples of what is hopefully to come more often in the future.

Fagan and Hennessy also agree that the condensed amount of talent coming through in Leinster could be better spread out across Ireland to the benefit of the other provinces and the national team.

Ireland U20 international Declan Adamson going from the Leinster sub-academy to Connacht’s academy is one of the most recent examples of what could be happening more frequently.

“Our population is bigger in Leinster than the other provinces, we have more people playing rugby, so why not try to maximise it and spread it out?” asks Fagan.

“I see lots of good players who we might not have a place for in Leinster but others may do. Say now in Leinster, we might not have space for another back row, but we have a lot of good back rowers coming through this year.

“It gives me just as much pleasure to see Tom Farrell playing in Connacht as it would to see him playing for Leinster. We have to look beyond the provincial. Everyone can love their own province but we must put this first – the players must come through.”

Fagan stresses that it’s not only about Leinster exporting – he doesn’t want to see backlogs of talent in one position at any of the provinces.

Clearly, there are challenges in Irish rugby even with the pathway delivering such positive results in terms of success on the pitch and player longevity. What is currently “world-class” could be even better.

Hennessy’s final warning is that succession is an essential part of the system in terms of the field of S&C.

“It’s not just about trying to keep the same people involved, it’s about the continuity of principles,” he explains, before highlighting his concerns about the levels of remuneration in the S&C side of sport.

Fagan admits to being “embarrassed” by the money he can offer when hiring coaches, citing the example of an excellent S&C specialist he was working with a year ago who has since quit and moved into finance “because he needs to live.”

Source: Setanta College/YouTube

“The average wage the individual gets for the volume of work, and the important work that is done, is really pretty disgraceful,” adds Hennessy.

“I’m not just talking in rugby, I’m talking across sports. You have this concept of the intern in S&C, where they’re expected to turn up for a year or two without any payment and contribute hugely, then at the end of it not to have any security.

“I think there’s great abuse taking place and there’s not enough acknowledgment of expertise.

“We’re proud to say Irish rugby has led the way in terms of many areas around player development but it would be great to see that rugby would lead in the way it looks after younger people contributing on this side of the game. That’s the start of the first steps of good succession planning.”

Hennessy jokes that Fagan is “no spring chicken” but the Leinster sub-academy man has plenty more energy and passion left in the tank for the years to come.

Having studied the pathway over the past 30 years, Hennessy believes that the likes of Fagan have been essential to its success.

“It’s about people. Anything can happen if the right people are put in place and supported.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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