Irish Rugby’s pipeline of talent keeps on producing players that have propelled the national team to the Grand Slam and Leinster to the top of European Rugby. The academy systems at Leinster and Munster in particular have created the kind of players that are able to take on the world.
But how wide is the entry point and what happens if you don’t go to the yet still narrow range of schools from which most of the talent is drawn?
Those questions are more relevant at a time when the attractiveness of the sport as a spectator is as yet not producing a mass advance of players beyond the thriving mini-rugby scene.
Perhaps that will come but the number of players over the age of 16 dipped in the last Irish Sports Monitor to less than one percent, down by one third over the past four years. Caution is always needed when dealing in the lower percentages but this is an 8,000 plus representative sample and cannot be ignored.
Widening the entry point and creating an opportunity for higher level coaching to a larger intake is the ambition of two South African coaches who have made their home in Ireland and who are now ambitious to bring more chances of a place in the sport to those beyond the most traditional of lines.
Nestling in the grounds of Kilashee House Hotel in County Kildare, Ireland’s first ever independent Rugby Academy will be open for business this September and has already begun the enrolment of its first crop of players.
The prize at the end of the year will be a guaranteed trial with a professional or semi-professional club to match the talent you have developed.
There will be plenty of help along the way as well with Mike Ross, Brent Pope and Bernard Jackman lined up to assist in making great players on and off the pitch.
“This is a first for Ireland but it is an approach to the development of players that has been firmly rooted in Southern Hemisphere rugby for nearly two decades now,” said the co-founder of Rugby Academy Ireland, Dan Van Zyl speaking to Sport for Business.
“The traditional route of advancing because you fit a particular coaches style of play leaves many players of huge potential on the sideline and without access to the kind of one to one coaching that will develop them into players that can carve out a pro career and perhaps one day represent their country.”
“Our belief is that providing a chance for players to develop and shine as players, as opposed to fitting the style of a particular team, will create rugby players in the coming years who might otherwise have missed their chance.”
The vision is to become the leading producer of professional players outside of the provincial academy structure. The quality of coaching that goes beyond local or school teams is also proving attractive in a wider context with interest already from across Europe and down to Van Zyl’s and Johan Taylor’s native South Africa.
That country’s participation in the expanded Guinness PRO14 has lifted awareness and exposure of Ireland as a rugby destination and could prove a pathway into the sport for players and as a playing destination for European stars in the years to come.
The Academy has already established connections with clubs around the world, in England, South Africa, Australia and the United States and will be sending the first crop of graduates for trials in those countries this time next year.
They are holding an open day at their Kilashhee House base this weekend where young players will go through a detailed assessment of their current skills and an introduction to the potential path in the sport that could follow.
“For the best that will be a place in the professional game that would not otherwise have been available to them, added Van Zyl. “For others, it will be a recognised qualification in coaching or in strength and conditioning that will give them a calling card to make a career and to reach their personal potential in rugby.”
There will be residential places at the Academy, in a block currently being finished out, as well as an on-site state of the art gym, full floodlit Astro and grass pitches, video analysis facilities and external course tutors in other disciplines
The sample programme of player development in terms of position skills, physical development and personal growth is impressive and represents a world-class addition to the development of the game here.
Van Zyl and Taylor are both qualified World Rugby educators. Taylor has managed at international level and Van Zyl has been involved in development at Leinster Rugby for more than a decade, as well as coaching Ireland Under Age and Women’s teams.
Tadhg Furlong, Joey Carbery and Fiona Coghlan have all spoken warmly about the impact and influence he has had on their careers.
It is early days but every success begins with the courage to bring it into the open.
Find out more about Ireland’s first ever independent Rugby Academy at www.rugbyacademyireland.ie