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There's just one Limerick player in Munster's academy. What's being done about it?

Some of the province’s greatest days have been heavily influenced by Limerick men.

LIMERICK IS FAMOUS around the rugby world for its love of the sport, for the unforgettable nights in Thomond Park, and for producing players who have powered Munster to some of their greatest days.

Peter Clohessy, Paul O’Connell, Anthony Foley, David Wallace, and Jerry Flannery are just some of the names that roll off the tongue. Before them came the likes of Tom Clifford and Colm Tucker.

The aforementioned all did battle up front, but there have been brilliant Limerick-produced backs too, with Conor Murray and Keith Earls still key men for Munster.

paul-oconnell-with-jerry-flannery-and-david-wallace Limerick men like Paul O'Connell, Jerry Flannery, and David Wallace were key for Munster when they won two Heineken Cups. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

However, the immediate future with regards to Limerick players and Munster doesn’t appear to be quite as rosy. What was once seen as a rugby hotbed simply isn’t now.

As things stand, there is just one Limerick-produced player in Munster’s academy in the shape of second row Paddy Kelly, who came through St Munchin’s College.

Munster’s senior squad includes seven Limerick players in Murray, Earls, Calvin Nash, Dan Goggin, Neil Cronin, Craig Casey, and Dave Kilcoyne – the last man in that list being the only forward from Limerick in Johann van Graan’s group.

It’s a concerning development, one that elite player development manager Peter Malone, who has been in charge of the academy since 2012, says Munster aren’t ignoring.

“We’re definitely aware of it,” says Malone. “My brief is to pick the best players I possibly can to come into the academy.

“The first priority is Munster-born players, the second priority is anyone qualified to play for Ireland, and then on a rare occasion we might go outside, say like Keynan Knox [a prop from South Africa], but that probably won’t happen again.

“If we feel there’s an area that’s not producing as it did previously, we look at it. Definitely, we’re looking at what the issue is, how we can support clubs and schools in Limerick, and just see if we can get to the bottom of it.

“We don’t have an answer at the moment. By population terms, you want your second biggest city contributing a proportionate number of players, and it’s a rugby city.”

It would be ideal to have one simple solution, to flick a switch that suddenly saw dozens of potential top-level players from Limerick flooding into the Munster academy. The reality is that it’s a complex issue.

75 to 80% of Munster’s players come out of the schools game, so much of their focus in Limerick is in this area, promoting sustainable development rather than looking for “quick fixes,” explains Malone.

St Munchin’s, Castletroy College, Ardscoil Rís, Crescent Comprehensive College, and Glenstal Abbey – based in county Limerick – all compete in the top-level Munster Schools Senior Cup each year.

paddy-kelly-with-rhys-thomas Paddy Kelly is the only Limerick man in the Munster academy at present. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Only one of those five schools is a private school [Glenstal], which does make a small difference to how much resource the school can put into their rugby programme,” points out Malone.  

He says “there isn’t the money” within Munster to pump more into the schools’ programmes, so the province’s support instead comes in the form of coaching expertise.

Malone believes Munster’s development programme under the guidance of Colm McMahon – who succeeded Ultan O’Callaghan as head of rugby development in January – is essential, offering support in the fields of nutrition and strength and conditioning but also, first and foremost, coaching. 

Coach development officers Noel O’Meara and Fiach O’Loughlin visit each Limerick school “once a week at a minimum,” while Munster also appointed New Zealander Mike Pettman in the role of ‘technical skills development coach’ last year.

Pettman, who previously coached with Manawatu, came on board thanks to private funding from outside Munster and had been recommended by Joe Schmidt. Senior Munster boss van Graan was also involved in the process. Pettman is working across the province but Malone hopes to see his impact in Limerick as much as anywhere else.

“His whole remit is in the quality of coaching skills,” explains Malone, “can we sell this to players at U12, U13, U14 levels? Guys need to ready at the age of 16 or 17 on the skills front.

“Mike is our Pied Piper at the moment, focusing on creating a legacy of skills development in the younger age groups in our schools.”

Malone says there is much good work being done by the Limerick schools, pointing to St Munchin’s reaching the last three Munster Schools Junior Cup finals. The hope is to see that success translating to senior level.

Exciting 20-year-old Munster scrum-half Casey developed in Ardscoil, while also being a Shannon clubman, and wing Nash developed in Crescent – he’s a Young Munster man – with Malone underlining that role models like them are key.

“Craig came through Ardscoil, where they run two brilliant programmes in rugby and hurling.

“You want to have ambassadors and after the Ireland U20s won the Grand Slam last year, Craig was back in the school for a past pupils’ dinner when they brought in the All-Ireland hurling trophy and Craig brought the Six Nations trophy.

“That’s a massive, massive part of it.”

craig-casey Shannon RFC man Craig Casey in Ardscoil Rís colours in 2017. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

But herein lies another of the possible issues for Limerick rugby – the recent success of the county’s hurling teams making that sport more attractive for youngsters who might otherwise have been more focused on the oval ball.

As for the club game in Limerick City, where some of Munster’s great players honed their craft and toughened themselves before becoming provincial stars, there are issues with player numbers at underage levels, according to Malone.

With the schools game taking so many players away from the clubs, the U16 and U18 sides in Shannon, Young Munster, UL Bohs, Garryowen, Thomond, Bruff, and Old Crescent face a tough task.

One of the other key challenges for young Limerick players hoping to push into the academy and on towards senior honours is that there are relatively new streams of talent coming from elsewhere in the province.

The Munster academy currently has two Waterford players in Tom Ahern and Eoin O’Connor, while West Cork is now a productive source of players as the likes of Fineen and Josh Wycherley, Liam Coombes, John Hodnett, and Gavin Coombes show their quality.

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Cork city and its schools remain key production lines, but there are also Tipp men in the academy in Jake Flannery, Ben Healy, and Diarmuid Barron, as well as Kerry’s Jack Daly.

“Part of the issue [regarding Limerick] is that we’ve been so productive in other areas,” says Malone. “The Cork schools have dominated the schools cup over the last four or five years, they have good rugby programmes that produce players every year.

“With really good work in key clubs, West Cork has been a real find for us.

“Maybe five years ago, it was a Limerick and Cork thing with the exceptional guy from Waterford or Tipperary coming through. If you look at the spread of guys in the academy now, you’ve got guys from Waterford, Tipp, West Cork, and Cork.

“Yes, we’ve only Paddy Kelly from Limerick.

“But Munster Rugby are aware of it. We’re supporting the rugby development crew to see if we can help schools or clubs to drive up the quality of their programmes if they want our support. To be fair to the schools in Limerick, specifically, they are wide open to it.

peter-malone Munster's elite player development manager, Peter Malone. Source: Tom O'Hanlon/INPHO

“But when we take it all into account, if there’s a better prop from West Cork than there is in Limerick, it’s the guy from West Cork that will come into the academy.”

While early identification of talent allows Munster to help promising young players in their development, Malone also stresses that the province need to be open-minded in Limerick and elsewhere about the All-Ireland League as a source of late developers.

The decline of the AIL amidst the rise of the professional provinces has actually hit Munster in terms of reducing the number of hard-edged Limerick men coming through, but they hold out hope for more examples like Garryowen scrum-half Neil Cronin.

“We’d love two or three more examples of guys like that coming through with really good performances for their club,” says Malone.

While Munster-born players are the priority and it would be good to have more Limerick men progressing, Malone insists that the province cannot be blinkered in only looking so close to home.

He says that signing young South African players straight out of school like they did in 2017 with tighthead Knox and centre Matt More – who moved home after struggling to settle – is unlikely to happen again, but that doesn’t mean Munster won’t look outside the province if they need to.

“We’re open to looking at any Irish-qualified player – from Connacht, Ulster, Leinster, those born abroad. We have depth charts, we track national squads, we talk about players who could have an opportunity to progress in Munster.

“The first priority is to get through players who are from Munster. But we’re not going to compromise on quality either. For the last three years, we’re really focused on guys who can add value potentially at European Cup level or potentially be internationals.

“Munster Rugby is aligned on that – Johann has agreed, the CEO has agreed. We’re not going to loosen the standards just because a guy is from Munster. We’re going to work our damnedest to get him up to the level where we feel he can move up.

“We want to be challenging for European Cups and we want a certain quality of player to do that. We will look Munster first but if we have gaps, we will look at the national depth chart as well.” 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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