Generation Next

ALL eyes may be on Thomond Park and the Aviva Stadium this weekend, but the more discerning Munster and Leinster supporters will also be keeping tabs on proceedings at the RDS this evening.

The province’s A teams will go head to head in a British and Irish Cup semi-final (6pm) that means little to the average follower but provides another barometer for the health of each province’s academy.

The majority of players on show will be homegrown — or at least home-bred — and this is their shop window.

“It’s a huge ask, to travel to the RDS to play the favourites,” admits Munster A coach, Ian Costello. “But it’s a challenge we’re really looking forward to. We have a quality squad who have worked extremely hard to get to this stage of the competition.”

You can’t judge an academy structure on one game, but this is nonetheless an opportunity for Munster to reaffirm the noises they’ve been making regarding their productivity haven’t been coming from empty vessels.

The Reds freely admit they took their eye off the ball regarding long-term player development during the Declan Kidney and Alan Gaffney years as European success became an obsession. The senior side was allowed grow old together, and when they failed to make a Heineken Cup quarter-final for the first time in 13 seasons in January 2011, things suddenly looked very bad indeed.

“We were deficient in some areas,” admitted Munster chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald recently. “But I think that happens anywhere you have players in positions for long periods of time.”

Another stick routinely used to beat the Munster system with is the relative dearth of representative players in the Ireland Schools, U19 and U20 sides. This is routinely put down to a variety of factors: namely the lack of numbers to select from in comparison to Leinster, and the notion that southern youngsters reared on GAA often specialise later on.

Indeed, some of the current Munster stars made very little impression on representative sides with Conor Murray and Ian Nagle two high-profile examples. Munster mightn’t have too many wearing green early in their careers but those that do are usually safe bets to make the breakthrough at senior level too — witness Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo.

Few realised amid the doom and gloom of the Toulon defeat 15 months ago that soon-to-depart coach Tony McGahan had taken more than a passing interest in Munster’s succession stakes since 2008, and was already demanding the highest standards from academy recruits.

“You accept criticism in this job, it comes with the territory,” said Fitzgerald. “But I think the perception that Munster aren’t doing things (with its academy) is wrong. It has been exaggerated.”

McGahan is one of many within the setup who have spoken out against the restrictions limiting Munster-contracted players’ involvement in the Ulster Bank League, suggesting that A games such as tonight’s aren’t enough for aspiring players.

“It doesn’t matter what position you’re playing, players have to be playing, so if the opportunity to play professional rugby doesn’t exist on the weekend, and A rugby doesn’t exist, they need to continue playing,” he said.

“We talk about training and getting all of those things in place but the bottom line is they have to put that to some sort of test, and the only way you get that is playing at the weekend. The club game has given Munster everything. The way we have been able to nurture our players. The first group of professional players came through the AIL and look at players that came through recently — the Peter O’Mahonys, the Conor Murrays, the [Mike] Sherrys, the [Stephen] Archers, you know they’ve built and experienced at an early age the rigours of playing AIL rugby and I think for them to continue we can’t have guys sitting on the sideline.”

For their part, Leinster don’t seem to have too many gripes regarding how their tyros are coming along. Academy scrum coach Reggie Corrigan wasn’t surprised when reacting to the news last year that French clubs had been sniffing around in the hope of snapping up some Leinster young guns.

“The academy system in Leinster is streets ahead of most, and the proof is in the quality of players it is producing and the province’s success at underage. It doesn’t surprise me that the French and English are taking a close look,” he said.

Colin McEntee is the man entrusted with keeping things ticking over there, holding clinics to screen for potential second-row talent (with the novel title of Route 6’6”) and sending the academy players out to do community service.

As with Munster, around 50% of the current Leinster senior squad served some time in the province’s academy, and the emphasis in both is on quality over quantity, with 18 players in each programme even though neither has reached its quota. McEntee’s counterpart in Munster is Peter Malone, appointed earlier this year to the position of elite player development manager, who explains that the lines of communication between the provincial academies are very much open.

“We would meet once every two or three months and have a general chat about how things are going, and go through any issues that might crop up,” he says. “We all operate on a common system but we each bring our own culture to it.”

Though he’s barely in the job a wet week, Malone admits there’s pressure on him to help secure the future of Munster rugby, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “There should be pressure every year to bring guys through. You’re not always going to have vintage years but this is the function of the academy, to produce professional rugby players. The future of Munster is (looking) very good. There’s some guys coming through with great potential that I think we’ll see in the next 12 to 18 months.” Should you make it your business to be at the RDS tonight, you might not have to wait that long to see them for yourself.

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