5 Up 2014 – Year 1

Jack O'Donoghue's got a nose for the try line

Jack O’Donoghue’s got a nose for the try line

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.

Jack O’Donoghue

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.

Peter Dooley

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.

Frank Taggart

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.

Dan Leavy

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

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.

General

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.

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6 thoughts on “5 Up 2014 – Year 1

  1. I’d like to see the structure of Irish rugby changed significantly with the introduction of a new level between clubs and provinces – counties.

    We’d have ten semi-professional county teams, each with their own academy. The counties would be solely responsible for bringing on talent with the union implementing a consistent professional approach with expertise like nutrition and conditioning being shared across the counties.

    The “A” provincial teams would be removed entirely and the provinces would be focused on just the one professional team.

    All the academy players would be contracted to the union through the counties, there would be an obvious path from counties to their respective provinces but it wouldn’t be a given. There wouldn’t be any contractual obligation to just one province until the province decides to bring a player into their extended squad (about 35 players). This would solve the problem of academy players being stuck behind internationals at one of the provinces, if a player isn’t in a 35-man squad then he’s fair game for any of the provinces.

    Another major plus is that people might actually be interested in watching the county games unlike the “A” provincials. With the loyalties already engrained with GAA, people should feel an attachment to the teams very quickly. It should actually be easier to develop than it was for the provinces, it’s easy to forget just how little people cared about the provinces only 15-20 years ago. A Limerick versus Cork rugby match sounds very enticing (or North Dublin versus South).

    The obvious major downturn is the further marginalisation of club rugby. There wouldn’t be any fix to this but would it really be that much worse than the existing structures?

    It would also be more expensive to run 10 county teams. The provinces would have their costs reduced due to not having the “A” games, having fewer contracted professionals and not having academies. But that would only partly offset the increased cost to the union.

    I think this system would allow for a larger number of players to be given a better chance to progress to professional rugby and would improve the overall interest in the game.

  2. There is plenty of talent being produced at underage level, translating the talent to senior level is difficult when players aren’t given opportunities by senior coaches whom seem to value experience over everything else.

    Injuries are part of the game, i’m not sure there is much you can do about it given where the game is going. Some players will be luckier than others, i’m sure the S+C staff try and control the risks as much as possible.

    Also i’m not sure how much the A games are affecting the AIL anymore, I believe they were structured in a certain way to prevent as much disruption as possible. 3rd year academy players are often relied upon by the senior team to either play or be part of the wider training squad during the week.

    All the academies seem to be leaning towards bringing players into the setup at 19/20 and having them ready to play senior pro 12 rugby at 22/23. Just look at the 3rd years in the Leinster academy this year:

    Prop: Ed Byrne(21): got some senior playing time(80 minutes) until knee injury ended his season. Got senior contract.
    Hooker: Bryan Byrne(21): got some senior playing time early in the season(192 minutes). Got senior contract.
    Lock: Gavin Thornbury(21): no senior playing time. Had injury problems in previous seasons. Future uncertain.
    Lock: Tadhg Beirne(22/23): no senior playing time, missed 1st half of season with injury. Had a lot of injury problems since joining academy. Future uncertain.
    Backrow: Dan Leavy(20): missed 1st half of season with injury, returned and played senior rugby during 6 nations(43 minutes). Got senior contract.
    Backrow: Josh Van Der Flier(21/22): got some senior playing time this season(260 minutes), season ended due to injury. Got senior contract.
    Backrow: Jordan Coghlan(22): no senior playing time, leaving for senior contract with Munster.
    Outhalf: Cathal Marsh(22): no senior playing time. Got senior contract.

    Entering next season, 5 players from this academy class are joining the senior squad, one is leaving and two Leinster futures remain uncertain.

    Graduates from 2013/2014 Academy playing time this year for Leinster:
    Prop: Tadhg Furlong – played heavily this season.(831 minutes)
    Hooker: James Tracy – no senior playing time.
    Backrow: Jack Conan – played heavily this season.(1128 minutes)
    Backrow: Conor Gilsenan – left for London Irish.
    Scrumhalf: Luke McGrath – played sparingly this season.(360 minutes)
    Centre: Com O’Shea – injured 1st half of the season. 1 appearance. (9 minutes)
    Wing: Andrew Boyle – No contract, playing club rugby in NZ.
    Wing: Sam Coghlan Murray – Got senior contract, no playing time this season. Leaving for Nottingham.

    4 players from that academy class got playing time this season and only two players got significant exposure. 5 players remain squad members going forward. 1 season out of the academy, two players are established in the squad, while the others Leinster futures are uncertain.

    Graduates from 2012/2013 Academy playing time this year for Leinster:
    Prop: Jack O’Connell – gone to Bristol.
    Prop: Martin Moore – injured twice in season.(549 minutes)
    Lock: Ben Marshall – got some gametime off bench.(315 minutes) Leaving Leinster.
    Backrow: Jordi Murphy – injured 1st half of season.(1005 minutes)
    Centre: Noel Reid – injured early in season.(501 minutes)
    Wing: Darren Hudson -gone to Bristol.

    4 players from that academy class got playing time this season. 3 remain squad members going forward. 2 seasons out of the academy, two players are established leinster and ireland squad players, while a 3rd had a disappointing season and will look to bounce back next year.

    The last two academy classes haven’t produced an established back but have produced 4 forwards who leinster will hopefully rely upon for the next decade. This upcoming graduate class is producing more forwards(4) when Leinster’s biggest problem has been it’s backs.

    Can Leinster afford to wait for the academy backs to enter 3rd year or graduate?
    There are 12 backs in their 1st or 2nd year in the academy, none of which have gotten senior playing time this season.

  3. The academy set up certainly is not perfect. It has a kind of ‘one size fits all’ feel to it.

    Eoghan Masterson in an article today.
    “It’s a very thin line between getting a chance to make it, and not doing anything about it and getting left behind. If I hadn’t given Nigel a call, I’m not sure I’d be playing any kind of professional rugby at all.”

    How many more Mastersons miss the boat? Missed out on Ireland U20 selection for the JWC and missed out on the Leinster academy but he has been one of the finds of the season for Conancht and Irish rugby.

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