A primary challenge for elite young rugby players these days is to avoid being overtrained and underplayed. Playing matches is the ultimate development tool, particularly from a rugby IQ perspective, and no amount of training is going to have the same net benefit in that process.
The emphasis should always be on playing a sport, it’s the best learning environment, provided that young players are not weighed down by a playbook the size of a telephone directory.
Club rugby could be the perfect facilitator, another layer in player evolution, especially when game time is on the skinny side for senior playing personnel in the provinces as is the case at the moment. Lansdowne's game against Young Munster at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday was a perfect illustration; good standard, good rugby.
The United Rugby Championship (URC) has shut down until the final weekend of this month. The provinces have doled out some downtime for players to recharge mentally and physically, while others, mainly academy players, got to play some All-Ireland League (AIL) matches.
Munster, from a senior squad of 48 players, have 10 away with Ireland, while eight played AIL, leaving 30 without a match, some of whom haven't had any game time this season.
Placing the academy players to one side for a moment, a quick and by no means forensic scan of the teams in the AIL Division 1A matches at the weekend revealed quite a modest number – Marcus Rea (Ballynahinch), Jack Dunne (Trinity), Peter Dooley (Lansdowne), Keynan Knox (Young Munster), Vakh Abdaladze (Clontarf), John Hodnett (UCC), Jack O'Sullivan (UCC) and Jack Daly (Garryowen) – of senior contracted players in action.
It feels like an opportunity lost to close the chasm between club and professional rugby in Ireland, something that needs to happen if the sport is to truly maximise the playing resources. A larger playing population and disparate routes to the top level will better serve Irish rugby.
I am a passionate advocate for the club game based on personal experience and the important role that it can play for those who are open-minded enough to see the benefits. I trained with Ireland before playing with Leinster and played with my province before lining out with Lansdowne; all within eight weeks of finishing my Leaving Certificate.
I struggled at provincial level initially but never at Lansdowne because I played without the straightjacket of heavily scrutinised rugby
Walking in the door to a packed Lansdowne dressingroom for my first night's training, untypically quiet and cowed, I was introduced by coach Michael Cosgrave to the group. Liam Toland took control of proceedings, good-naturedly ripped me to shreds and that broke the ice: many are still very good friends to this day.
I loved playing, cut my teeth in Wexford, went to Clongowes, two games a week, and onwards to the professional arena where we were limited to 12 professional matches with the AIL providing the balance. Cossy was intuitive in the manner in which he coached the person as much as the player. His approach was to encourage good players to express themselves on a pitch and put a little structure around it.
I struggled at provincial level initially but never at Lansdowne because I played without the straightjacket of heavily scrutinised rugby with a perverse focus on mistakes that can suffocate flair and invention. ‘Head-up, scan the pitch and back your decision, good or bad’ was the gist of the instruction given to me.
When effort and application is added to talent at that level then coaching can take more of a back seat. Shane Horgan, Collie McEntee, Stephen Rooney, Gabriel Fulcher, Toland and Barry Everitt didn't have to be told what to do because they knew by inclination. With the possible exception of a hooker, senior interpro players don't have to memorise a playbook to play with their clubs. Good players adapt.
I was even more grateful to Lansdowne on one occasion because it assisted me in getting back into the Irish squad after an extended period out with a broken arm.
The then Ireland head coach Declan Kidney gave me permission to play but suggested that perhaps I should focus on my distribution, having spent the previous few games moonlighting on the wing. I did as requested and it stood to me that day and beyond. The Clontarf game is another I'll treasure in the Lansdowne colours.
Given this season's format in the URC and the scope on occasion to embrace the club game as a competitive outlet I hoped it would be eagerly snapped up by provincial squad players outside of the academy group. On the balance of evidence to date that appears unlikely or perhaps more accurately not on the grand scale that it might.
Most look to New Zealand for direction in the evolution of rugby so it seems appropriate to cite an example from there. Aaron Smith didn't travel with the All Blacks to first Australia and then on the northern hemisphere tour because he was awaiting the birth of his second child.
No shying away
To keep sharp he played with his club Manawatu Turbos in the NPC. The NZRFU was happy for one of their best players to play club rugby. It’s a rule of thumb there, not an exception, in a similar way to the umbilical link between an intercounty GAA player and his club.
The IRFU has never effectively addressed the re-positioning of the club game in Ireland since it was overtaken in importance by provincial rugby. It's barely defined in the player pathway route map, superseded by British & Irish or Celtic Cups and A interprovincials, depending on the season in question.
At underage levels schools hold primacy in terms of developing players for the professional game but it’s worth bearing in mind that the vast majority start as minis in clubs. The union needs to re-examine how they resource clubs not just in financial terms but in facilitating the highest calibre of coaching possible.
Educating the educators should ensure that young boys and girls get the best experience from the sport, irrespective of level. There is no shying away from the fact that underinvestment in coaching in underage rugby damages the sport at the top end. We can make players bigger, stronger and faster but we cannot imbue them with years of decision making and problem solving.
In truth if I hadn't moved to centre my career would have been a great deal shorter
The emphasis should be on fun, learning skills, inclusivity for all and trying things without worrying about systems or consequences. What currently happens is that the best runners and the most physically powerful dominate at underage levels and skill development is put to one side. I know because I was that person, fast and powerful but the least skilful as a result of the schools system.
I could counterattack on a whim, beat defenders and do the fun stuff but when the game changed and defences tightened up, with athletic loosehead props like Cian Healy roaming the field, space was at a premium; my lack of aerial skills and kicking became very apparent.
I was never confident under a high ball but managed to paper over the cracks with hard work. In truth if I hadn’t moved to centre my career would have been a great deal shorter. This solved one problem but exposed another. I could pass accurately in isolation but didn’t know why or when. I didn’t have 10 years of making split-second decisions to fine tune those instincts.
I played with Will Greenwood on the 2005 Lions tour and he had everything I didn’t when it came to good habits and technique, running with the ball in two hands and being able to pick from a wide repertoire of passes. At 24, when I moved to the centre, I had to learn new skill sets; it wasn’t easy and I wasn’t that successful in my opinion. ‘Capable’ was perhaps the most accurate description for that part of my game.
For me the message is simple, we need to encourage and develop skills at the earliest touch point, and by doing that the club game can then assume its rightful place as an integral and vital pathway in the Irish rugby ecosystem. It’s also crucial that clubs recognise the folly of imposing professional systems on young teenagers.
I don't believe the Japanese structures have dramatically improved since the World Cup and I know ours are still rooted in inertia
This is where coaching ‘the how and the why’ is so important. The perceived wisdom of employing an ex-professional, who will most likely try to transplant the methodology of their former work environment and foist patterns on young people without the understanding or skills to implement them, is a fool’s errand. A coach’s development relies on gathering experience to understand how to guide the person and the player.
Players need to play, it’s in the name. I struggle to understand the mindset of a professional player that would prefer to train than play. I have been that frustrated fringe player. It should be a simple decision between a game of footy and a gym session. Provinces need games for players, clubs can provide that outlet. Let’s hope that’s reflected in the AIL next Saturday.
Japan visit the Aviva Stadium this Saturday and will provide a litmus test of where this group of players are today under Andy Farrell. To me it is also going to give a very strong indication as to the health of Irish rugby, compared to their counterparts.
I don’t believe the Japanese structures have dramatically improved since the World Cup and I know ours are still rooted in inertia. Japan will play a high-paced, highly-skilled game that is a fair reflection of their domestic league. What will Ireland show?
On Saturday I suspect a tight Irish win, on the back of a game narrow in orientation. In my gut this will feel like a loss. Are we not better served trying to adopt a playing philosophy that reflects the players on the pitch, one that perhaps lays some foundations for future success and encourages a proper crack off New Zealand? Ireland won’t beat the All Blacks by kicking to corners and picking and jamming.
The road to success is paved with failure. Ireland in terms of playing style must have the courage to embrace that journey, potholes and all.