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Murray and Stander among speakers at Irish rugby's first U18 inter-pro festival

The IRFU’s Eoin Hogan explains what has been involved in the inaugural festival at UL.

ANOTHER BUSY DAY of underage rugby awaits at the University of Limerick tomorrow, with the Clubs and Schools championships set to be decided in the final round of the first-ever IRFU U18 inter-provincial festival.

Early feedback on the festival, which has seen the provinces’ U18 sides and an IQ [Irish-Qualified] Rugby team competing over the course of 10 days, has been positive and the new format looks like it could become a permanent part of the Irish rugby calendar.

Connacht celebrate after the game Connacht Clubs have two wins from two heading into the final day of action tomorrow. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

Whereas the inter-pros previously took place across a number of weeks and didn’t involve the teams coming into camp, the festival has seen more than 200 of Ireland’s most promising players getting a taste of a professional-like environment at UL.

The idea of playing the inter-pros in this format was raised at a Leinster Schools committee meeting last October, around the same time as IRFU performance director David Nucifora and high performance manager Colin McEntee were also discussing the possibility.

With the Clubs committee swiftly on board, and Nucifora and the IRFU’s other big guns figuring out the budgeting, it was left to McEntee and the union’s age grade and student manager, Eoin Hogan, to drive the project forward.

“From a high-performance perspective, the coaches can talent ID in what is really a professional environment,” explains Hogan of the benefits of the festival. “They can upskill players, keep an eye on S&C, nutrition, all of that.

“Next year and the year after, some of these guys will be at the U20 World Cup, which will be the same environment and same intensity. There will be guys from here involved with the Ireland U18s in an international tournament next Easter too, so it gets them used to being in camp.

“We’re finished on Sunday and a lot of them will go back to school next week, so this is not impacting on their academic focus, as the inter-pros might have before.

“They’ll be back in school to start working towards their Leaving Cert or A-levels. They’re also back into club rugby or schools rugby so it’s not hindering their season plan either, so it’s a win-win.”

While the three game days are naturally the main focus of the festival, the off-the-pitch side of things has also been integral.

Daniel Okeke is tackled by Sam Illo Munster Schools' Daniel Okeke makes a carry against Leinster. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Munster’s Ultan O’Callaghan has led a pair of mental skills seminars, carried out before and after game day two on Wednesday in order to allow players to put into action the key points of the first session and deliver feedback.

Former RAF pilot Lee Webster delivered a presentation on making decisions under pressure, while there has been a focus on education around recovery strategies – “we’ll have a massive bill for ice,” jokes Hogan – and nutrition too.

“The players have been stressed but stressed in a good way,” says Hogan. “We need to be mindful of managing the workload and that was one of the key messages that has come across. Sometimes less is more.”

Obviously, some players from the biggest rugby schools have already been training like professionals and would be well accustomed to much of the off-field elements of the festival, but others are learning entirely new things.

“There’s a huge variance and it all depends on the player’s age too,” says Hogan. “Some guys in here are only 16 and have another year in this level, have just played Junior Cup last season maybe.

“Some schools then have full-time directors of rugby with really strong programmes, others are club guys who – with the greatest respect – might only train one night a week and play at the weekend, albeit they’re brought in for regional camps.”

On Monday, Munster players Conor Murray, CJ Stander and Fineen Wycherley were in UL for a Q and A session that was very well received.

“They just told the guys their stories,” explains Hogan. “So many of the guys could associate with what they were saying – that it’s not all plain sailing for anyone.

Conor Murray and CJ Stander after the game Munster, Ireland and Lions pair Murray and Stander spoke to the players. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Conor mentioned that in the first Munster representative squad he was involved in, himself and Peter O’Mahony were the 23rd and 24th man, so it goes to show that you have to stick with it.

“CJ had a different perspective coming from South Africa obviously, but he was talking about how the Blue Bulls tried to get him to convert to hooker and he stood by his guns. That worked for him, although other guys might have to change.

“Fineen was talking about how he went to a school in Roscrea, played Leinster Schools but was from west Cork, so they were all different perspectives and I’m sure so many of the 200 players here could associate with one of the three in their journey.”

Alongside the player development, the U18 festival is also important for the progress of young coaches.

The fiercely contested inter-pro games themselves are the main source of that learning, but the festival also involved a coaching module on effective attack led by Ireland coach Richie Murphy on Thursday.

With IRFU analyst Vinny Hammond coordinating all the match footage at the festival, teams have been able to analyse their opposition, meaning there are “no cards being kept close to the chest, with everyone out of their comfort zone,” says Hogan.

He has been encouraged to see coaches from different provinces sharing ideas, particularly given that some will go on to coach alongside each other with the national underage teams.

Among the coaches at the festival is former Ireland international Kevin Maggs, head coach of the IQ Rugby team.

The involvement of IQ Rugby underlines once again the increased focus the IRFU has placed on this branch of the union, which involves identifying Irish-qualified players in the UK and eventually bringing the best into the Irish system.

Sean Bundy celebrates scoring a try with Dan Aldwinkle and Hayden Hyde IQ Rugby have been involved. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

IQ Rugby can’t actually win the Schools inter-pro championship but their inclusion has been a welcome development, even if they have had challenges.

“They wouldn’t have had the benefit of the camps that the provinces have had over the summer,” says Hogan. “IQ Rugby obviously don’t have that ownership of the players, they’re reliant on the goodwill of the Irish diaspora in the UK, teachers and the likes, to release players.

“They had some players who weren’t actually released, or others played for their clubs in the English academy league last Friday and missed the first game day.

“That’s a challenge but they have a good network and quite a bit of resource has gone into that area. It’s great to help them feel more part of the Irish rugby programme.”

The plan moving forward is that the festival will become an annual event and while Hogan says the venue could change, “UL has set the bar so high.”

There have been discussions about including the provincial U19 teams in the future, while the possibility of having the U18 Girls inter-pros become part of the festival has also been raised.

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Murray Kinsella

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