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'Give players the skills first and then teach them what to do with the skills'

Rob Forbes of the Irish Rugby Institute explains the philosophy behind their coaching.

LISTENING TO ROB Forbes talking through the intricacies of something as specific as dropping the ball from hand to foot for a kick, his passion for the basic skills of rugby comes through in buckets.

Forbes is the co-founder of the Irish Rugby Institute, as well as head coach of St. Fintan’s High School – who have been on a remarkable journey of development in recent seasons – and his belief is that core skills are the key to the sport.

The Irish Rugby Institute [IRI] offers rugby camps for minis right up to 19-year-olds, with international visitors making up a large part of their client base, and Forbes says that giving these young players a grip on the basic skills is at the heart of their work.

The Institute also provides bespoke coaching for touring sides, regularly coach coaches, and also travel abroad to work with clubs, schools and universities on their rugby development.

Forbes was fortunate enough that legendary Ireland out-half Ollie Campbell is a family friend, and so he developed a love for working on his passing, kicking and catching skills from as early as he can remember.

“It all goes back to what Ollie taught me about focusing on the skills, the skills, the skills,” says Forbes.

“If we’re coaching here in Ireland, or over in France, Italy or Spain, the first thing and last thing I’ll always say to coaches is that if you want kids to enjoy rugby, if you want to enjoy coaching, if you want the supporters to enjoy it, and for your team to play well, give the players skills.

“Give players the skills first and then teach them what to do with the skills. Give them the tools before you start asking them to use those tools to take advantage of space or create space.

“If a player has the tools and understands how to create and preserve space, you’re so far down the road. You could nearly let them go and play organically if you’ve given them the tools and understanding of space. You know really good stuff is going to happen.

“If the rugby becomes about the coach trying to create pods or try some move they saw on Super Rugby, you’re wasting the kids’ time and your time. I love to see a kid being able to unlock a defence with a pass or hit a key kick.”

IRI was founded in 2009 when Forbes partnered up with Rossa Keane and Daire Higgins with the aim of providing high-quality coaching within the already-popular camps format.

One of the motivations for Forbes was seeing his own son come away from various sporting camps having learned very little and not enjoying the experience.

St. Fintan's team

Forbes has a coaching background with Belvedere College, Leinster ‘A’ schools, Coolmine RFC, Suttonians RFC and the Leinster women’s side, and still has ambitions to push into the higher levels of the game with a club side in Ireland or further afield, but IRI and St. Fintan’s are the focuses now.

IRI runs week-long camps at Halloween, Easter and during the summer, with their base often being at Suttonians’ grounds on Station Road in Sutton, though they are very much a separate entity from the club.

Local-based players are a major part of the camps, which start at €99, while IRI hosts visitors from a wide range of European nations, North America, South Africa and even Hong Kong in recent times – those international courses starting at €1,200 for two weeks.

With accommodation organised with local hosting families, English lessons available through the Centre of English Studies, and various barbeques and day trips also involved, Forbes says IRI is about more than just rugby.

“That cultural experience is so important,” says Forbes, “international kids and Irish kids getting out of their comfort zone and working together to understand it all.”

Forbes runs the coaching side of things for IRI but their guest coaches in recent years have included former Leinster players Shane Jennings, Eric Miller, Chris Keane and Stan Wright among many other specialists.

IRI has worked closely with a range of clubs and institutions abroad too, with Forbes making trips to places like Universitario Bilbao Rugby to coach coaches and work directly with their teams.

He stresses that IRI’s aim is to build long-term relationships with players and clubs alike, with a long-term development viewpoint taken.

“For example, there’s a young guy called Michel over in Universitario Bilbao who first came to us as an 11-year-old. He did a few summers with us and I’ve coached him over in Bilbao.

“He then wanted to expand his rugby knowledge, and we have contacts in South Africa and New Zealand to place players there. Michel went to New Zealand and next year he is coming back to play under me in Ireland.

“From 11 to 21, he has been part of this journey where we’ve not only coached him but given him experiences elsewhere and coached his coaches. We’re not his main team but we’ve been there in the background all along.

“We are someone who can be with you through your rugby growth and hopefully what we deliver is going to embellish your rugby journey. It comes down to the player, coach, club, how much they want to interact with that.”

Lots of Irish players who have done IRI courses have gone on to big achievements, with several of Belvedere College’s back-to-back LSSC-winning sides among them, as well as Sweden age-grade internationals, Spanish internationals and French academy players.

Forbes has extensive experience coaching women’s rugby, having head coached the Leinster side for three seasons from 2013 until 2016, and catering for female players has been key to the Institute.

Girls have always attended IRI but this year has seen the Institute putting into place a new method of coaching and working with female players that is based on genuine research into what they want to get from rugby.

“This Easter represented the first time that we put together a researched, personally-designed women’s package,” says Forbes. “We used to just take girls in and make sure they got whatever the guys got and that was fine.

“But it came to our attention that some of the girls’ journeys to 14, 16, 18 wasn’t the same as what a guy’s was. We came to realise that our girls needed more of some things than other things.

“For example, unless girls have had the fortune to have a Gaelic background, they don’t come with a lot of kicking literacy, but they might be fast and get put on the wing. Now a core skill is alien to them, so let’s work hard on that.

“Girls are often better problem-solvers than men are, as a collective, they will ask questions, so let’s get more of that into our camps.

Rob Forbes

“One of our coaches met with girls we’ve had in the camps and did research sessions with them – ‘What do you want on a course? Longer or shorter?’ Often their rugby journey has been different to the boys’ training history, so we’ve looked to tailor it more.”

IRI also cater in individual coaching, working on specific positional skills, such as throwing and kicking, building up a strong understanding of players in this one-to-one setting and often working on the skill over the course of several years.

Forbes feels that the IRI is a “coiled spring,” ready to grow again in Ireland and abroad, particularly the UK, but stresses that instilling a passion for the game through the growth of basic skills will always be central.

Some players may not go any further on their rugby journey, while others might take valuable lessons from IRI and go on to bigger things.

“That will be because of their clubs but we like to think that we’re adding a small bit of polish, growing certain things and at the same time adding to their love for the game,” says Forbes.

“That can’t be overstated – they’ve got to love it.”

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