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Ireland's age-grade sides behind 'physically and technically,' warns Carolan

‘We’re finding that, at age-grade international sides, we’re a little bit behind the eight ball.’

NIGEL CAROLAN IS the man behind much of the superb work being done bringing academy players through at Connacht and he’s also the man in charge of the Ireland U20s.

The Connacht academy manager knows a thing or two about the development of young players, so when he says Ireland are falling behind their international rivals “physically and technically,” it is certainly reason to sit up and take notice.

Nigel Carolan Carolan is in charge of the Ireland U20s. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The Ireland U20s’ preparations for next month’s World Rugby U20 Championship in Manchester continue today with a meeting against a Munster Development/A side that includes Donnacha Ryan, Robin Copeland, and Niall Scannell.

The U20s finished third in this year’s Six Nations and recorded a magnificent win away to England, but suffered at the hands of Wales and France. With New Zealand and the Welsh in their World Championship pool, tough tasks lie ahead.

While the schools game in Ireland, particularly the Leinster Schools Senior Cup, has a superb reputation for producing players of a high calibre to feed into U20 and professional levels, Carolan is not convinced that it is the be-all-and-end-all.

“With my experience with international age-grade sides over the last few years, I hope that I benchmark players internationally,” says Carolan. “When I look at what’s required for a player it’s at international level, rather than at provincial schools cup level.

“While it’s a competitive model and, for a period of time, it does create that energy around players, I’m not sure that it’s the only tool that’s required to develop players.

“We’re certainly finding that at national U20 sides; players coming out of that system are not always equipped to deal with their equivalents from the other nations.”

In which aspects of the game?

“In every aspect; technically, tactically and more importantly physically,” says Carolan. “We’re a little bit behind.

“Our plan in the academy programme, and it’s aligned to the IRFU, is to try and push all of the resources downward so that we’re able to provide a wraparound service to the 16-year-old with a primary focus on skill and physical development.”

Carolan stresses the need for Irish rugby to be stronger at identifying the players with the greatest potential to be successful at as early a stage as possible, allowing them to provide that ‘wraparound service’ sooner.

Ultan Dillane Dillane is one of Ireland's success stories in recent times. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

While Irish rugby does appear to be providing a steady stream of young players into the professional ranks, Carolan underlines the need to benchmark their quality in an international sense.

“That’s the important thing, that we look outside at our competitors,” says the former Connacht wing. “If we just look at our own players and compare them to each other, we’re going to miss the boat.

“We’ll be successful, but in a bubble. We must look beyond and even countries like Italy are moving on and starting to resource players earlier.

“We’re finding that, at age-grade international sides, we’re a little bit behind the eight ball physically and technically.”


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In terms of finding players earlier, Carolan has certainly developed an eye for potential in his role as Connacht’s academy manager.

Along with bringing through Connacht-born players, Carolan has helped to lure talent from further afield into their system. The likes of Munster underage star Ultan Dillane, Leinster native Peter Robb and Kieran Marmion, who played in Wales as a youth, are all examples.

“When we started the academy programme more than 10 years ago, the IRFU funded Connacht to the tune of 50% of the other provinces,” explains Carolan.

“So, in the last 10 years, we’ve grown the academy into a model which not only looks after the players from within the province, but we realise that there are players in other areas who are not getting picked up and we made it our business to make sure there was a home for those guys.

“It’s based on work ethic, coachability, those players are adaptive; some of them have been successful. Ultan, Kieran, Eoghan Masterson [Leinster underage] have been some of the success stories.

“It doesn’t work for all of them, but Irish rugby is too small to turn a blind eye to some of the players. The devil in the detail is trying to spot the potential. It’s easy to pick the strong players, but trying to spot the guy with potential is what the knack is.”

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Murray Kinsella

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