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'Changing the mindset in the younger groups is a huge legacy from these last few years'

We spoke to Glenstal head coach Sean Skehan about his side’s Munster Schools Senior Cup success.

THE DUST HAS settled now but Glenstal Abbey’s achievement remains remarkable.

Last month, for the first time in the school’s history, they won the Munster Schools Senior Cup, beating CBC Cork in the final at Musgrave Park to spark wild celebrations.

Having a new winner in the competition is extremely positive for Munster and Irish rugby, and Glenstal’s ambition won’t stop with their first title – the trophy coming 86 years after the school opened its doors.

Ben Healy raises the trophy at the end of the game Glenstal lift their trophy at Musgrave Park last month. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

That Glenstal has only 258 students makes their journey to the top of Munster schools rugby all the more impressive. Having risen out of the ‘B’ school ranks and from minnow status in the Senior Cup, they now look like being consistent contenders.

Sean Skehan, head coach of Glenstal’s senior team, has been at the school since 2012 and he also led the side to the final of the Cup last year, when they lost to PBC Cork.

He points out that the Murroe school’s students now have a completely different mindset than has been the case in years gone by.

“It’s odd now that the second year kids in school just think we always get to the final!” says Skehan, who is also attack coach for AIL team Garryowen.

“That’s great for them because it takes the first group to break the mould. You always think you’re inferior to the bigger schools or think it’s going to be impossible to win at the highest level against them.

“Changing that mindset in the younger groups is a huge legacy from these last few years.”

Anyone who listened to Glenstal captain Ben Healy’s post-match interview on Eir Sport after the final last month would have been struck by his professionalism.

The exceptional out-half, who is an Ireland U19 international, spoke about “trusting our structures,” the important of Glenstal’s “instinct belief” and their conviction that they had a “culture that winning was within us.”

The perception is that Leinster schools are streets ahead of Munster’s when it comes to the quality of their rugby set-ups, but Glenstal have operated on a similar schedule to many professional teams in recent seasons – individual skills sessions, video analysis, top-class strength and conditioning, the works.

The Munster Schools Cup has also had a reputation as being home to unglamorous rugby in the past but out on the pitch, Glenstal have led the way with their exciting attacking game, which is guided by Skehan.

Sean Skehan Glenstal head coach Sean Skehan. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

While the financial strength of Glenstal has surely been helpful in the improvement of the school’s rugby programme, they could very easily focus on other recreational areas.

“The school has said, ‘We can see the value here in everything you’re doing in terms of how the lads are doing in the rest of their lives in school,’” says Skehan in explaining how Glenstal has promoted rugby.

“The players themselves would have done a lot of setting standards and values for themselves, things like ‘how we should be acting around school’.

“Things like making sure that if there were events in school, a musical or whatever, that they would have a representative there, getting to games the U15s were playing, or if they had an off-day to do coaching sessions with the younger age grades.”

Skehan is a Dublin native who came through St. Michael’s College and studied in UCD, while playing club rugby with Wanderers FC.

His brother, Andy, is the director of rugby at St. Micheal’s and head coach of UCD, with Sean having started his own coaching path at Michael’s before a move to Glenstal at the age of 22 to complete his Higher Diploma in teaching.

Skehan didn’t coach for his first few years in Glenstal – when current Newcastle Falcons academy coach Aiden McNulty was the school’s head coach – but could see there was an ambition to get better.

McNulty sometimes only had 17 players available for selection in the senior team and his job was tough as Glenstal struggled to compete with the biggest Munster schools.

When McNulty moved on to work with Munster Rugby in 2015, Skehan was handed a role as head of rugby in the school, with Tom Tierney and Simon Malone coming in to coach the seniors.

Building on McNulty’s work, Glenstal managed to go all the way to the semi-finals of the Senior Cup that year, with current Munster academy scrum-half Jack Stafford and ex-Ireland U20 fullback Colm Hogan standing out.

Jack Stafford Jack Stafford is now playing for Munster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Vital in making this leap was the fact that Glenstal started to seek out the most difficult fixtures they could before the Cup.

“We just said we would go and play the best teams,” says Skehan. “Glenstal had maybe been trying to hide from playing good teams because they were worried about what kind of hammerings they were going to get.

“We felt that the best thing to do was get a really good fixture card, irrespective of how good our senior team was going to be each season. If we played better teams, we were going to get better.”

With Tierney leaving to coach the Ireland Women the following season, ex-Munster wing Ian Dowling came in to join Malone but Glenstal had a less successful campaign as they lost both of their Cup games.

Skehan stepped up as head coach before the 2016/17 season, having previously focused on organising fixtures, finding coaches, developing video analysis, and improving the school’s strength and conditioning programme as the head of rugby.

Tom Hayes, brother of former Ireland prop John, was moving back to Limerick after retiring from his playing career with Exeter Chiefs, and Skehan felt he would be an ideal fit for Glenstal’s coaching team.

“I met Tom and we talked about implementing a shape-based attack, which just wasn’t really being used in Munster.

“We talked about his ideas from Exeter, where he had done academy coaching. We said we would go flat-out, be really attacking. With that, the team spiked.”

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Glenstal started to get more players through to Ireland Schools level and reached the final of the Cup in 2017, where they disappointed themselves with an underperformance that was a lesson for the coaches as much as the players.

“We were probably a little indecisive as a coaching team and we were so concerned with how good Pres were,” says Skehan.

Ronan Quinn scores their first try of the game Wing Ronan Quinn was prolific for Glenstal. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“We were very cautious not to play in certain areas of the pitch, which was totally against what we had done up until that point. We would have been all about moving it from anywhere if the options were on for us.”

Glenstal “didn’t fire a shot” as they lost 11-3 to Pres.

“Going into this year’s Cup, we said we were never going to have that again,” continues Skehan. “If we were going to lose, we were going to lose playing the way we believed we should be playing.”

While this progress was being made on the pitch, Lukasz Kirszenstein, who works with the Galway hurlers, had come on board as S&C coach, while former Glenstal prop Felix Ross joined to head up their performance analysis.

The coaching team was reinforced by ex-Ireland U20 back row Kelvin Brown, who helped with Hayes with the forwards. Noel Davis and Jamie Gavin also assisted in the coaching, while Brian Collins and Fabienne Green provided physio expertise.

Young Munster player Ben Swindlehurst was an important addition as skills coach too.

While Glenstal have thrived with the aforementioned shape-based attack, their base skill level has grown notably, perhaps explaining why a school with so few students can compete and win.

“We spend a lot of time on skill development and skill maintenance, just working on catch-pass a lot,” says Skehan. “By having that and having good decision-making games in training, you get big improvements.”

The main part of Glenstal’s training sessions this season has been a drill where a team of 15 players attacks between the two 22-metre lines, each of which are defended by teams of 12 players.

The attacking team keeps the ball until they score or make a skill error, when a ball is thrown in anywhere on the pitch and they turn to attack the other 22.

Ben Healy with the trophy after the game Glenstal captain Ben Healy. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

“They’d fail a lot in those 22 drills but we’d constantly be encouraging them to take those chances and take those risks in finding the space,” explains Skehan. “That proved to be successful for us.”

Glenstal’s shape in phase-play attack in recent seasons has undoubtedly been a point of difference.

They have often operated with 1-3-3-1 in their build-up play, but their shape has morphed depending on which part of the pitch they’re attacking from.

“It was a big competitive advantage for us but more so because we weren’t totally slavish towards it,” says Skehan.

“We would spend a lot of time on what we call our chaos attack, so what would happen in a transition from defence to attack.

“We also do a lot of powerplay stuff, tempo lineouts, short-sided stuff, our shape, but really it is mainly about trying to get your good players onto the ball as much as possible and let them make decisions with a couple of good options off them.”

Out-half Healy, whose kick passing game was also encouraged by his coaches, was the key decision-maker for Glenstal and is one of a handful of players who have genuine professional aspirations in the coming years.

Back row Mark Fleming has been superb, while back three stars Aran Egan, Ronan Quinn and Andrew Hogan have shown their attacking class, as have many others.

For the next generation of players in Glenstal, there are now big achievements to attempt to match.

“It’s really important that we build on this and don’t go into a yo-yo thing where we’re reliant on a good group of players to be competitive,” says Skehan. “Our goal is to retain the title next year.

“You’re not going to win the Cup every year but we want to challenge every season and always look at how we can improve, across the board.

Glenstal Abbey players celebrate after the game The class of 2018 have set a new standard for Glenstal. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

“I’ve been reading a lot about Sean McVay, who is the LA Rams coach and he’s only 32, a really interesting guy.

“He talks about wiping the slate clean – you can’t just depend on the stuff you did to be successful this season working next season. If we’re going to be competitive, we’re going to have to try and stay ahead of the game somewhat.

“Our shape attack might have been a difference in the last year or two but teams are catching up with that. So what do we do next?”

Glenstal’s 2018 MSSC winning team: Aran Egan; Andrew Hogan, Harry Benner, Caolán Dooley, Ronan Quinn; Ben Healy (captain), Andrew Walsh; Harry Boland, George Downing, Patrick Prendergast; David Kelly, James Fitzgerald; Ronan Leahy, Conor Booth, Mark Fleming.

Replacements: Pádraic Mulligan, Donagh Hyland, John Ashe, Niall Queally, Mark Walsh, Brian Leonard, Scott MacKeown, Mark O’Farrell, Ronan Hanly, Bill Fitzgerald.

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