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Dublin: 18 °C Thursday 6 August, 2020
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'We've had guys from top schools crying at half-time, can't believe he's losing'

The Sharks are hoping to attract Irish schoolboys to summer camps in Durban, an experience they hope will build mental strength.

THE LINKS BETWEEN Irish and South African rugby are long-standing ones.

On top of the international honours won by the distinctive accents of CJ Stander, Quinn Roux, Robbie Diack, Rob Herring, Richardt Strauss or Dion O’Cuinneagain, there have been numerous provincial stalwarts backing up teams on these shores.

Long before Rassie Erasmus and Johann van Graan, the flow of knowledge from South Africa ran steadily thanks to the likes of Shaun Payne, Johann Muller, CJ van der Linde and Trevor Halstead.

Francois Venter and Jacques Nel after the game Francois Venter and Jacques Nel greet eachother after the final match of the Pro14 regular season. The Cheetahs are in playoff action against the Scarlets today. Source: BackPagePix/Deryck Foster/INPHO

This season, the introduction of the Cheetahs and Southern Kings to the Pro14 has further solidified the southern hemisphere presence, but a Dublin-based tour company is hoping to entice the country’s rugby schools to seek out the Sharks academy in Durban when planning their summer training camps.

Etienne Fynn is a former prop with the Natal Sharks and now the South African Super Rugby side’s academy director. The barrel-chested ‘Bok is in Dublin as part of a drive to promote the value of outside teams travelling to the South African east coast city to work with the academy’s coaches and ‘live like a professional’ at the facilities based around Kings Park in Durban.

Primarily, the target market are the top schools across the provinces who consistently challenge for Junior and Senior Cups along with forming the pathway for Ireland internationals. Increasingly, these feeder schools have become remarkably professional-like in their approaches with strength and conditioning and professional rugby coaches helping to make players more and more equipped for senior rugby as soon as they step out of school.

General view of the ABSA Stadium Kings Park in Durban has hosted Lions Tests and internationals. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Fynn has welcomed players of school age from a variety of nations and is undoubtedly aware of the wealth of coaching resources available to Irish schools. So he is keen to stress that players who do a stint in his academy can develop mental skills alongside training the more measurable fitness and skill aspects.

There is always scope to broaden the mind.

“You can see a clear pattern,” says Fynn, “you can see the guys destined to become doctors, destined to become lawyers or artisans and others will be sportspeople – be it soccer, rugby – schools that have identified the need to look after young athletes, the youngsters that come out of those schools are generally prepared from a strength and conditioning point of view.

“The youngsters coming out of the more rural school and take a broader view of an education, they will need more work. We’re here to focus on S&C when a guy comes out of a small school, but he might have more talent.

However, what’s also clear is that a lot of them can be almost ingrained to a certain pattern of play or a certain philosophy and aren’t easily swayed. So it’s a delicate balance.

“It’s about showing the youngster who is physically ready, but mentally and emotionally not, because he’s almost been in a bubble winning everything he’s played in.

“Maybe he’s got massive defensive or emotional shortcomings because he doesn’t know how to handle losing or being under pressure for 20 minutes, he reacts badly. We’ve had guys from top schools crying at half-time, never been down at half-time, can’t believe he’s losing.

Blackrock players and supporters ahead of the game Blackrock's senior Cup team face their fans. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“They put so much pressure on themselves these youngsters.”

“(Losing) is inevitable, but the way you handle it has to improve”

Fynn’s whistle-stop tour of Ireland last week included stops in St Munchin’s, Clongowes Wood, St Michael’s and Blackrock – serial providers of international players who the ex-prop and Irish company DBS Tours are hoping will find the funds to take their post-Junior Cup team to Durban.

It’s no small venture for any organisation to embark on, but it’s not new territory for schools to venture self-planned tours in far-flung fields, so Fynn is acutely aware of the need to provide a return on investment.

Ashley JohnsonWasps’ Ashley Johnson failed a drug test and is currently suspended.Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Fairly or not, it’s tough to shake some feeling of concern when it comes to talk of targets in South African sport. In rugby there is always a pressure on individuals, particularly young prospects chasing a breakthrough, but South Africa has earned a bad rap with some high-profile doping positives.

From Chiliboy Ralapelle (currently a Shark) in 2014 to this year’s failures from England-based Ashley Johnson and Brandon Staples, South African rugby is clearly not without its doping problems. However, the enormous country also has the second-largest playing population in World Rugby (behind France) and its hard to shake the suspicion that there are more widespread drug problems in the sport which are not yet being fully detected.

“There’s great education taking place at schools level,” says Fynn on the subject doping in South African rugby, though he adds: “I don’t think you can stamp it out entirely throughout the world.

“You can have youngsters who will take chances. Young people, sportspeople – be they in athletics, rugby… will take chances, but we have really good testing.

“We have the SA Institute of Drug Free Sport and all youngsters playing representative rugby for any of the provinces face random drug-testing. Random drug-testing does take place.”

The ‘chances’ Fynn alludes to often come as a result of pressure a young athlete feels to show a rate of improvement, or sometimes sheer size. An increased focus on skills in many parts of the rugby world doesn’t negate that pressure, because agility, acceleration, speed, endurance and recovery are all physical traits which can be chemically enhanced.

The genial ex-prop can only place his faith in the policing measures that exist and, at the coalface, encourage players to work and improve their game across a broad range of aspects.

The best teams in the game are able to move in and out of gameplans and styles with relative freedom. So when Fynn speaks about the ‘Sharks philosophy, he is not referring to the senior Super Rugby team’s style of play. When squads are under his watch in camp, he attempts to tailor a focus.

“Each country has its own strength in the player pool. While we have some naturally big guys, of course athleticism and skill-set is the way the game is going.

“You’ve got to look at the game, who’s doing what and follow. but you also have to make sure you’ve to strike your own path, don’t try to mimic everything, do what you’re doing.”

“Our main aspect in how we look at long-term player development (is) you need to concentrate on generic aspects of an individual’s skill-set: catch-pass, positional specifics for a prop, outside backs…

“From a playing philosophy, that’s only really driven in once you get to the provincial team level. Our main focus is looking at how you take player A and take him where we can in terms of growing his skill-set.

“Player X may have very different needs, so we’d do the same thing.”

This conscious and detailed effort to tailor a training load by player or position is in line with what already exists in the Irish systems.

And although Dublin school St Michael’s impressive recent rate of producing Ireland internationals brought a visit from English Institute of Sport this year, Fynn and the Sharks are in Ireland neither to absorb the methods nor to turn the tide of young players moving from south to north – players in the mold of Keynan Knox, who finished school in Natal and travelled to Ireland to take up a place in Munster’s academy.

“I wouldn’t say stem the flow, because the game is going global. If a youngster wants to leave because he feels it’s best for his career as a young professional he’s entitled to do that.

“The only thing that’s going to keep him in the country is if he’s in the national setup: is he next in line, or in the line?

“The top tier of the game, the money they can earn is unbelievable. It’s the next tier down. So if a youngster is going to go, he’s going to go. If he’s going to stay, he’s going to stay.”

Though if schools take up the opportunity to train in the Sharks’ academy, under Sharks coaches, then the link will feel that bit stronger again for players.

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Sean Farrell

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