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'We’ve all been jealous of Leinster for that' - Ulster aim to keep closing gap

The northern province’s young guns showed their quality again last Friday night.

Leinster's Max O'Reilly and Ulster's David McCann last Friday.
Leinster's Max O'Reilly and Ulster's David McCann last Friday.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

LEINSTER’S ACADEMY REMAINS the gold standard in Irish rugby but Ulster can reflect on a satisfying few months for their emerging talent following last Friday night’s A team victory at Kingspan Stadium.

It was Ulster A’s second win over Leinster in the space of four months, with many of the northern province’s young players underlining their promise. 

Kieran Campbell – the Ulster academy boss, A team head coach, and new Ireland U20s boss – was justifiably pleased after last weekend’s 37-14 success in Belfast. He has been hoping to see the gap to Leinster closing and is encouraged by what he has seen.

“Guys know that it’s one thing to be given the opportunity but you need to take it as well,” said Campbell. “There’s a level of competition coming because there’s a little bit more depth in our programme. It’s not as easy for guys to get these opportunities, that drives guys on.

“Whether we like it or not we’ve all been jealous of Leinster for that, the competition in their programme drives their performance and we hope that we’re getting closer to that model.

“We’ve come a long way in all sorts of contexts. We wanted to get to a position where there’s a huge fight to get into the academy. That’s why two or three years ago I was saying that I wasn’t really interested in the immediate successes because I knew that we needed to develop a level of competition that made sure it wasn’t just cyclical, it became a system.

“We’re starting to get a system now. Harry Sheridan played at six [against Leinster], he’s studying at Trinity, he’s not under contract, he’s in the sub-academy, he had a really good game. That’s the sort of depth we’re looking at.

“I won’t be satisfied until I have loads of Harry Sheridans, until it’s an absolute fight to get into our academy. I want to put us in a place where it’s not cyclical, that we don’t have cycles of talent which can happen, but that we have a system of producing talent.”

It’s clear that the current group of youngsters in the province have major potential.

Back row David McCann, who was superb again as captain last Friday, is one of the most exciting talents, while there are many others putting their hand up as they look to make the breakthrough into senior rugby.

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Campbell and fellow Ulster academy coaches Aiden McNulty and Jonny Graham were delighted with how cohesive an effort the A team delivered last Friday, despite the fact that many of those involved have played very little rugby over the last 10 months due to Covid-19 restrictions shutting down the AIL and underage rugby.

Campbell is sure that this is only a hint of what is to come from this group of Ulster prospects.

“I’m going to be biased but I believe a lot in this group of players that are coming through,” said Campbell. “David McCann is obviously a very good player and he talked a lot about how a lot of these players have been on this journey together since they were 15.

“What does that bring? It’s the intangible stuff, that determination to perform for each other. It’s also the understanding that they’ve worked really hard since they were 15 and that talent has been evident.

“It has been developing nicely to this point but you need to see performances too and when you see a performance like you did [on Friday], you start to believe that little bit more that these boys have the potential and the quality to be making an impact in the Ulster seniors in a couple of years.

“I’ve always believed that, I’ve always believed that there was a level of talent that we can develop to give success.

“I have to be fair to Dan [McFarland] and the senior staff, they are giving these guys opportunities in training, they are watching them closely and they are giving them opportunities in matches.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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