The third year of the 5 Up Series followed five players in four provinces. In the second year of the series we concentrated on midfielders for reasons outlined at the time. In this year there was a preponderance of back row players, or back five if you’d rather categorise Sean O’Brien as a second row as we did.
At the beginning of each series the players are bound together by age-grade representative rugby for the national team. Those ties are temporary and, while not exactly going their separate ways, there is a greater diversity of experience in the subsequent seasons.
I was in post-match discussion in a club house bar with the Munster vs Connacht match at Thomond on in the background. While not paying too much attention to the game, we were keeping an eye on the score and what the ramifications might be for playoff and European qualification. O’Donoghue came on about the hour mark and as the camera focused on him I turned around to my buddy and said “keep an eye on this guy, he’ll score a try”. He didn’t, but it was because his intercept and 40m dash to the line was called up for him not being back ten metres. It was probably the right call but he was pretty close to being legit. “That guy will play for Ireland,” we both agreed on the basis of a few minutes’ worth of watching him.
That gut feel seems to sum up sentiment towards O’Donoghue who is an instinctive footballer. His try scoring record is uncanny and he doesn’t look to be carrying the excess weight piled on to academicians attempting to bulk up for the pro game. He was captain of Munster A throughout their B&I Cup run scoring four tries and was used by Foley during the Six Nations when he made two starts and two more appearances from the bench. He scored three tries in this quartet of appearances, an impressive strike rate.
Kieran Read’s name comes to mind when watching O’Donoghue so no pressure here, lad. [Edit: but not just from us, check out O’Donoghue’s thoughts here]. Read was 22 when consistently selected for Crusaders (debuted in 2007) and had just turned 23 when selected for the All Blacks. Heaslip was just under 23 on debut and just over 24 when consistently selected. O’Donoghue turned 21 in January 2015 and signed a three year deal. Paddy Butler’s move to France opens up a back-row spot and O’Donoghue looks to be in Foley’s thoughts for selection over the short to medium term.
A few comments reveal the value of academy graduates signing both from a veteran like Donncha O’Callaghan, “You can’t beat that, the home-grown guys that care. Rugby in many places is turning into a budget game but as long as we’ve got guys that care we’ll be alright.” and from O’Donoghue himself, “I’m in my last year of the Academy so I’ve been pressing to get into the senior setup so when Munster came to me and offered a three year contract, that’s something you can’t turn down. To play with the province you grew up in is a dream come true and I’m absolutely delighted to have signed up for three more years.”
The interview with the Waterford News also includes info about O’Donoghue’s studies and that “I’m also in my final year in college at the University of Limerick, so it’s a balancing act okay… Yeah it’s pretty full-on alright, that’s for sure. Basically if I’m not on the training field with Munster or playing matches, I’m at a lecture or in the UL library trying to catch up. It’s not easy but thankfully I’m managing it alright at the moment at least.”
It’s been a strange sort of season for Offaly man Dooley, caught between three teams with different needs. At the time of writing Dooley is still 20 (he turns 21 in August) and, as we noted last year, already has a season of UBL Division 1 under his belt as a loosehead. This season he started for Lansdowne in the AIL, played most of Leinster A’s matches in the B&I Cup and has benched for Leinster in the Pro 12. His Pro 12 exposure is explained by the fact that Ireland’s two first choice looseheads play with Leinster so when they’re away Dooley has to step up as you need two props on the bench. While I’m in favour of young players gaining exposure at the top level, front row is probably the one position where you can wait. Midfield and back row involve high paced collisions but you can play around those to a certain extent; in the front row there’s no avoiding it. Dooley stayed on the bench for three of his four Pro 12 games but made his debut against Edinburgh in October. He won the final of UBL Division 1 with Lansdowne in May 2015.
Taggart hasn’t been involved with Ulster at Pro 12 level at all this season and has played his rugby for Belfast Harlequins and the Ulster Ravens where he was used from the bench. Most of those starts have come at blindside but Taggart has also been used as a number 8 and an openside upon occasion. He is a nominee for Ulster Bank League Ulster player of the year.
Leavy has played astonishingly little rugby this season due to injuries. What he has played has been all Leinster as far as I can make out. He was used from the bench in three Pro12 games against Edinburgh, Zebre and Ospreys for 42 minutes of senior rugby and started two B&I Cup games against Carmarthen and Worcester as Girvan Dempsey’s men were beaten in the English midlands after winning the competition for two years in a row.
Leavy has been plagued with injuries all season and has been unable to build up a meaningful body of work. This follows on from an u20 year when he got injured during the Six Nations and then missed the JWC.
Sean O’Brien hasn’t played at all this season. While Leavy’s repeated misfortune looks frustrating, O’Brien’s prolonged absence looks worrying and there was no sign of activity throughout the season that Galwegians won promotion to Division 1A.
The 5 Ups have developed a fairly consistent format where a brief précis of progress in the last twelve months is followed by a discussion about themes that affect this group and possibly have wider implications. Notable among those themes are the ideas of player movement and selection of young players for Pro12 games. The summaries of the player movement often run along the lines of “Piece of Meat A to Geographical Location X”. Reviewing Sean O’Brien’s injury stricken season gave me pause to consider that there might not be an Option B in the game for some players if the injury is severe enough. Best wishes to O’Brien on his recovery and that he returns to play again next season.
One of the discussions frequently had on Against the Head – the Go Easy Gazette (nod to Whiff!) – is the role of AIL/UBL in player development and the attraction of A games at provincial level. Year 1 of the Five Up series features players who are still playing with their clubs as well as varying amounts of game time in the B&I Cup and even Pro 12. O’Donoghue played most of UL Boh’s UBL games last season but this year has only lined out twice in the domestic competition. The remainder of his games were B&I Cup games, A friendlies and Pro12 matches. Dooley started more frequently for Lansdowne while Leavy didn’t play at all for Collidge. Only Taggart was a regular feature in the UBL with a number of games for Belfast Harlequins to his credit this season.
There’s an incompatibility about academicians playing for their clubs that at first sounds puzzling. Being contracted to a province at academy level means undertaking a professional level of conditioning as well as pitch based training. If a player then commits to studying at undergrad level it means that with work and study obligations it is his hobby which suffers i.e. club rugby! The extent of this conflict reveals itself most starkly when selected for the A team. It’s understandable that the coaching ticket of the organisation that employs them then wants them to line out for a provincial team, at least upon occasion. If they’re playing for the A team then they’re not around to play for the club so if consistently selected that’s six or seven weekends gone to the B&I Cup right there.
Is there an alternative to the current system? The Crusaders opened up an academy in Nelson to complement the one in Christchurch. Eighteen players have been selected for the Nelson-based academy, with the focus between players the ages of 18 and 22. “With both a Christchurch and Nelson base, we can capture more of the local talent within the Crusaders region. We want to provide a pathway to both provincial representative rugby and to the Crusaders, and this new academy structure will make that pathway clearer and also allow more players to follow that path while remaining close to home. Ideally they’ll come in at 18 and stay in the programme for three years. We’ll give them all the tools inside and outside of rugby to succeed.” Eighteen is a comparable number to what Leinster have in their academy although I expect the total number in the Crusaders academy is at least doubled by the guys based in Christchurch. There seems to be a wider net cast although NZ has more rugby players than Ireland so it’s not a like for like comparison. The standard of club rugby is high compared to elsewhere in the world and the NPC provides an ideal intermediate step between the club game and Super Rugby.
Nigel Carolan spoke to Murray Kinsella about the objective of academies in The 42, “If there’s an objective of the academy programme, it’s about bringing players through to the professional game. We established that the objective of the Ireland U20s is the same thing, it’s about confirming players for the next level.”
The model is “We select you to turn you into a pro” and is based on performances at underage level coupled with a subjective estimation of potential. The alternative model as implemented by the Crusaders is “We want to improve your chances of making it” with the recognition that not everybody will. The former is a closed system and selection at the outset is crucial. The latter is open and performance throughout benefits adaptability.
Should young players play more for their clubs and how different is the standard between “A” games and the Ulster Bank League? Marty Moore talked about making the step up to the pro grade when interviewed after this international season “When you come up to Rabo you are playing in a professional environment and a lot more is expected of you than if you are playing with Leinster A or with your club side for a bit of game time. I think that would have been the biggest leap, trying to play 70-80 minutes at Rabo level. It wouldn’t be feasible to go playing for the A team week in week out, and to be thrown into starting a Heineken Cup game. It could be too much.”
Based on this quote there isn’t the same jump from club to A level as there is from A to pro rugby and neither prepares you adequately for the pressure of the pro game. Moore refers to the amount expected from you at that level and one of Mannix’s refrains on Against the Head is that playing for your club teaches you to play in a team because it matters to more people. One of the questions that raises is whether lads in academies view club rugby as a distraction from their academy obligations…is anyone watching them or is a club fixture an opportunity to get “a bit of game time” in between doing box squats? Of course, Moore’s elevation once it happened was steep and he went from the A team bench to the international team in the space of less than a year.
Whether or not a young lad plays for his club depends on if he is injured or not. Empirical evidence presented by the Five Up cohorts provides food for thought.
Iain Henderson is an athletic anomaly who not only played for Ulster at the end of his u20 season but scored a memorable try against Munster when doing so. He spent a good chunk of the next two seasons injured but has still managed to earn 17 caps. Stuart Olding has suffered two ruptured cruciate ligaments while Dan Leavy has had a plethora of recurring injuries. All of these guys have had lots of exposure to pro rugby at a young and played very little at club level. The counter to this experience is Robbie Henshaw who made his debut for Connacht at 19 and is the picture of health.
The other road sees the likes of Rory Scannell and Frankie Taggart enjoy relatively injury free runs while Tom Daly got injured playing for Leinster A this season but had a good stretch of games with Lansdowne on their way to winning the league. On the other hand there is the experience of Shane Layden who was beset by injury despite playing far more club rugby than at pro level. Is injury just down to bad luck or is it caused by exposure to a physical game before being ready?
One thing is certain, it’s a difficult to judge the correct time for a young lad to move into the pro game. Over the long term I think that it’s a case of the earlier, the better because the long term looks at the guys who make it so there’s a survivorship bias. On a month to month basis there‘s the need to get a player game time against the opportunity cost of holding him back when he’s ready to move up.
The final point about this year’s group is the underage provenance. It was a long evidenced truth in Irish rugby that the schools provided the vast bulk of players that graduated to international level. That appears to be changing with a similar number of players from the 2010 clubs’ team professionally contracted as there are from the schools. It’s a positive move for Irish rugby and one that hopefully will continue to provide the most competitive athletes with the opportunity to enjoy a professional career at home.