Ulster academy have their 'act together' and are ready to unleash pack mentality

Academy manager Kieran Campbell is confident that the province’s production line will deliver consistently.

THE IRON’S BEEN in the fire, now comes the time for it to be hardened, sharpened.

Kieran Campbell drags out the whetstone.

Kieran Campbell Kieran Campbell on Ireland U20 duty earlier this year. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Ulster’s academy manager is proud to again open the doors and invite outsiders to witness a room full of Ulster hopefuls being put through their paces. It is not a boastful pride, he is proud of work already done, and intent to propel upwards from it.

It’s the second year that Ulster have pulled back the curtain on their production line in this way. The broad outline of the players’ schedule looks the same as it did in 2018, but there has undoubtedly been a refining process over every detail.

The Abbey Insurance Academy has been synced up fully with the senior squad’s approach, so Dan McFarland’s ‘Fight For Every Inch‘ mantra swirls constantly about conversations, underpinned by the nursery’s own go-to battle cries. 

Bite. Edge.

“We really got our teeth into it last year,” Campbell says of the culture being driven in his squad of fledgling talent.

“Like anything, you’ve got to drive the standards of the rugby first. We weren’t at a level to really go after culture and make it a base from where we could work from; because we weren’t good enough in our fundamental processes and our rugby first.”

As with any overnight success, the Ulster academy — which was responsible for nine debutantes in the senior ranks last season — has brought about their improvements out over the course of five years.

Campbell glows with enthusiasm with the mention of names like James Hume and Michael Lowry. Not just because they were the outstanding backs to make the jump last season, but because they represent the first fruit of joined-up thinking after the implementation of the IRFU’s national talent squad (NTS).

With five-year lead-times, Campbell resists the urge to celebrate the number of players supplied for Pro14 and European Cup duty over the past 12 months. Metrics of that ilk leave too much room for mitigating factors – not least injury to front-liners. Instead, the former international scrum-half has his cross-hairs trained on ensuring each man is ready whenever the jump may come.

“We’ve still a long way to go. This isn’t a time for celebration, it’s a time to say we’ve got our act together,” Campbell says with a steely look.

“I have huge faith in what we’ve done. Three years ago, four years ago, we wouldn’t be having the same conversation.

“It’s not the end product to deliver to that level. I have to back what we’ve done, that we’ve put players in a position to have longevity. With that longevity and a nucleus of players, we’ll have a quality team.

I’m not a big one for patting on the back anyway, it doesn’t interest me. But I want to see guys performing and fulfilling their potential. Is it enjoyable to see someone’s success? Yeah, of course, but ask me when we’ve put some silverware on the table. Maybe then I’ll have a beer and enjoy it.”

“I’m much more confident now (in) tracking guys, where they’re coming from and where they’re arriving, Now we have some healthy targets. But is that in terms of six through this year, seven next year? No, sport doesn’t work like that.

“But if I pick up a Michael Lowry, a James Hume, a Robert Baloucoune an Eric O’Sullivan, do I say to myself ‘they have to arrive or I’m not doing my job?’ Yeah I do.

“Do I look at Aaron Sexton, or an Azur Allison, a David McCann, a Stewart Moore and say, ‘Is it my responsibility to make sure that they play for Ulster?’ 100%. Unless there’s a bad injury, those guys are at a requisite level.

Eric O'Sullivan, Robert Baloucoune and James Hume celebrate victory Eric O'Sullivan, Robert Baloucoune and James Hume celebrate a win over the Dragons last season. Source: Alex Davidson/INPHO

“You saw the try that Stewart Moore scored, you saw what David McCann did at the World Cup (for Ireland U20s), we all know that Aaron has that point of difference. It’s my job that they arrive there and in the case of some of those boys that they don’t just play for Ulster but play for Ireland.”

All this talk of metrics and points of difference is flowing freely because Campbell presented a selection of key indicators in his morning address to the invited media and stakeholders. The measured factors were broadly in line with aspects the IRFU are keeping tabs on. Many of them paint a picture of attitude on top of underlying ability and the 2019 winner of Ulster’s Academy Player of the Year was selected on the basis of those numbers.

So while Lowry starred in Europe and Marcus Rea scored a try and won man of the match in the end-of-season victory over Leinster, the work-rate of Joe Dunleavy instead took the big prize on the back of 296 tackles through the year. The Donegal man will surely follow Rea into Ulster’s back row soon enough.

Joe Dunleavy Dunleavy makes a break for during the 2018 U20 World Championship. Source: Iconsport/INPHO

“Everything is tracked,” says Campbell. And he means each action in every match and training session players undertake. Whether they are wearing the red hand, a club jersey or a bib, their efforts are continually monitored and measured up against the succinct ‘fight for every inch’ ethos.

Rea topped the charts in effective collisions during the year and was runner up for the gong, ahead of powerful hooker Zach McCall.

Going hand-in-hand with those on-field measurables are a class of metrics Campbell calls ‘squeeze every drop’ which are focused around off-field behaviours such as nutrition, rest and recovery.

Players are given a theoretical percentage share in the organisation and the value they add to those shares are laid out daily on a whiteboard – positioned so that operations director Bryn Cunningham can take note when he is in the building.

As well as top-down influence, peer pressure is encouraged on those scores. And along with the ‘squeeze every drop’ elements inspired by a quote from Greg Norman, there is a decidedly lupine theme running through the academy setup.  The weekly crop of best performers are labelled ‘Alphas’. ‘Bite’ was the foremost quality players suggested be added to their skill-set and a quote from the classic Jack London novel The Call of the Wild headlines a key slide.

Ulster are breeding a wolf pack of their own.

Ulster Rugby. John Dickson, IRFU, Dicksondigital, Kingspan Stadium, Belfast, Northern Ireland Aaron Sexton leads the way during a training session in Newforge. Source: John Dickson

“With that (call to action) comes ‘bite’ in competition, ‘bite’ in knowing your detail, being on top of your job, always pushing to make sure that you’re on  point in what you need to do individually for yourself off the pitch; rest, eat, sleep whatever it is.

“That’s the extra growth this year. But it is very organic, I didn’t determine that, it was given to the  players to decide on. What I’ve said to the players is, ‘if you’re doing this you’ve got to honour it’. It has to be authentic and it has to be every day.”

Tell-tale signs of the player-driven environment are present throughout the day. Players present analysis slides and show no qualms about dissecting a team-mates’ shortcomings on a particular play, though it is followed up with a constructive, ‘square your hips’, ‘ease off that line’ or a ‘get there a bit quicker’.

“There’s a level of honesty and you’ve got to be responsible for your actions,” says back row David McCann, who was among the impressive performers for Ireland U20 during the summer World Cup.

“Everyone is trying to make you better. So that can (mean) a bit of criticism, but it’s only to work on you, improve your game and that can improve the team.

“Different people find it hard, I found it hard at the start, but you learn people are trying to make you better, make the team better and you’ve got to work for that.”

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Fight for every inch extends to fighting every second. So before Campbell closes his squad meeting he illustrates a point with the defining moment of Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam.

In the week Iain Henderson has been named as the province’s new captain, we expect his crucial carry in the lead-up to Jonathan Sexton’s dramatic late drop-goal in Paris to be the action highlighted. Instead, Campbell stops the clip after the ball sails through the posts, before Sexton is buried under a pile of ecstatic team-mates.


‘Where’s he looking?’ Campbell asks the class.

The answer, of course, was at the clock. What’s the next job? How long is left? Is the game over? 

This crop are being pushed to ensure they play through 80 minutes and beyond. S&C coach Peter Donnelly, formerly of Tyrone GAA, is conditioning them to be ready for ‘the death zone’ when oxygen must be dragged into lungs and every act is an ordeal rather than a reflex.

As the field session goes on and even comfortable onlookers begin to notice that items on the day’s schedule have missed their window, players are moved almost seamlessly from drill to drill.

Rugby, contact, running. Rest is minimal, but temperatures, fatigue and direction from coaches is high throughout a punishing Friday session.

‘I didn’t realise we were going to the fuckin’ death zone today,’ one player is heard to cough from a prone position on grass that offered no cool reprieve.

“It’s brutal,” says year one academy hooker Tom Stewart, “you really have to go to the depths and push each other through. The heat doesn’t help either, we’re roasting and the sweat’s pouring off you.

“At the end of the day it’s all about development, pushing each other and seeing where you can go.”

Kieran Campbell and Dwayne Peel With Dwayne Peel looming, Campbell gets a pass away against the Scarlets in 2006. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

For the northern province, the place they lust to wander in is the winners’ enclosure. It has been too long since silverware was adorned in white and red.

Campbell will remember it better than most, but he’s sickened that his players have to look at 13-year-old footage for a glimpse of Ulster claiming a title.

“The lads found a clip of the 2006 win against the Ospreys and they were saying, ‘Didn’t realise it was you that passed the ball (for David Humphreys’ league-winning drop goal). You were slim, you’d no grey hair… how long ago was that?

“That was enough for me to think, that shouldn’t be the case.

“Not because I was the best player or whatever, but those young guys are looking for a bit of success and it shouldn’t be 2006 that they’re going back to.”

That is the metalwork Campbell is hammering towards.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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