Forget all the marketing blurbs and advertising campaigns: is the national side really the Team of Us, or is it still primarily the preserve of those who have come through the fee-paying schools' system.went in search of answers.
Back in 2010 Guinness broke the news to us: “This is Rugby Country”.
Just like that. No cross-table talks, no UN delegation. Not even George Mitchell.
A few years later, Vodafone amended the rugby constitution and rugby country was now a proud owner of the national team itself: The Team of Us.
Forget the decades of quietly muttered social division. Ignore the class warfare. Banish from your mind the white-collar takeover of a sport that, in other rugby countries, carries no such baggage.
This was a new Ireland, and a new sport was its official representative. You all became rugby citizens, like it or not.
But were they right? Is it accurate? Has the strong sell brought strangers into the parlour, or has it had the unintended consequence of pushing potential guests away?
As 2020 approaches, the national team is still dominated, by a striking number, by players educated in a select number of private schools.
Sixteen of the original 31- man squad at the World Cup in Japan (51%) went to fee-paying schools in the 26 counties, with eight others either educated in the north or overseas.
Team of Us? Recent numbers suggest about 6.5% of the population attend such schools.
Limerick provided the bulk of the other players, with Robbie Henshaw, Jack Carty and Tadhg Furlong the remaining “outliers”, as Malcolm Gladwell might call them.
But as we approach the end of the decade, is there any sign of change? Should there be? Must there be?
The barely concealed schadenfreude following Ireland’s failure in Japan suggests there’s a way to go to become that ‘rugby country’, with some finding it difficult to empathise with a cohort that they share little in common with.
A friend recently attended a rugby event in Dublin and noted how he had not been asked so often what school he attended since his first year in University. It’s the kind of focus that grates with many, even if the Ireland players who emerge from such schools are often (whisper it) painfully humble. Yet there’s a strong sense that the diversity that enriches other areas of our culture would be welcome, once they, of course, reach the same level of ability.
Are those new accents on the way? Must we forever endure the schools ‘banter’?
We went north, south, east and west, to attempt to capture the state of this aspiring rugby nation.
On the morning of Ireland’s ill-fated World Cup game with Japan, Lowe dropped by the packed Clondalkin RFC clubhouse.
It was the third time the New Zealander had made the trip, following a visit to hand out end of season medals, and the first time the visited to pull on the jersey of the club he’s adopted since joining Leinster.
“The lads love him there, he’s come out a few times off his own back,” explains Eoin Delaney, a coach/strength-and-conditioning-trainer with the club. He understands the value of struggle, and a lot of our kids are from similar backgrounds. So I think he values what the club stands for.”
Lowe, eligible to play for Ireland next year, receives a hero’s welcome in West Dublin, but for a moment Delaney allows to imagine him as a homegrown player.
“You see Seán O’Brien down in Tullow, he’s like a king down there, he’s worshipped by them — imagine we’d a young lad come out of Neilstown, or Tallaght or Saggart and go to play for Ireland...”
Delaney, 27, has something of an idea of what it takes to make it in rugby. Having come through the fee-paying King’s Hospital school in Palmerstown, he played with Lansdowne and Wanderers before being persuaded by some old school mates to train with Clondalkin.
Seven years later, he’s still there, plugging holes where needed, and spreading some of the knowledge picked up on the AIL grind.
Now he’s closer to home, in Newcastle, and he’s well placed to trace the growth over the past few years, with the club drawing in players from a host of local catchment areas.
“It’s definitely growing, if you look at playing numbers for our youth section,” he said.
“When I joined we’d sort of an 18s side, 10-12 players at 16s and one U13 team. Now we’ve over 200 youth players, with about 45 players at U14 level, another 25 in U13s and 35 in the U16s that I’m coaching. They’re all young lads in the area, from Tallaght, Clondalkin, Rathcoole, Saggart, the feeling towards rugby is growing all the time.”
The apathy many showed after Ireland’s World Cup failures was not evident in the Clondalkin clubhouse, which is “wedged” when Ireland or Leinster play, or even the Lions.
Soccer and GAA dominate the sporting landscape in the area, with Round Towers a GAA institution and a vast number of soccer teams dotted liberally, but slowly Clondalkin believe they are making an impact. They’re lucky to have had land bought in the early 1970s on which they built their pitches and a clubhouse, and they have two gyms and a setup that educates their players on nutrition and mental health.
It may be impressive, even by overall club standards, but when you place this against the private school systems it’s hard to imagine a more uneven playing field.
“We are absolutely ambitious here with our kids, and you have to be, but the pathway is harder for a young club player trying to get to the top.
“A massive percentage of the players at the top are from those schools...Blackrock, Clongowes, Andrews...for better or worse, that’s how it is.
“It’s ridiculous what’s going on with some kids, I know of one lad who is working with a U14 schools side, and the kids are doing four hours a day of rugby work!
“The Adam Byrnes, Seán O’Briens, even the Ciarán Frawleys, they’re freaks — so they’ll always make it through no matter what. But there are lads who are down the rung a little bit who get a chance with Leinster, and they seem to be getting more than someone at a club.
“It’s on the IRFU and Leinster to fix that and purposefully invest in the pathway. There is a pathway there...it’s just a lot easier for people from the schools.”
Even Tadhg Furlong, one of the world’s greatest tighthead props, struggled with those odds.
“Coming from the non-traditional route, I had a massive chip on my shoulder,” he admits. “I remember, and I hope they don’t mind me saying it, these posh, private school lads from Dublin. I was competing against these. You put that chip on your shoulder to drive on and help you make something of yourself.”
There’s no denying the challenge Furlong faced, and there’s no denying it still exists.
But our wide reaching conversations suggest change is underway. It’s just not quickly enough for anyone’s liking. While the IRFU, and the likes of four times European champions Leinster, will be somewhat content with what the current pool of players continue to achieve, there’s scope for much more talent to be brought through from outside the schools’ route.
“I think it’s happening, Munster, in particular, have tried really hard to spread the game throughout the province,” says Marcus Horan, the former Munster and Ireland forward.
“In Limerick I think we’ve just one lad in the academy from the city, but on the flip side they’re getting guys from Waterford, Bantry, Skibbereen and Bandon...hardly rugby strongholds. To give them their dues, they are spreading the game.
“There are new clubs forming and that’s a positive, too. You won’t see it change immediately, it takes a while to fit in, but hopefully you may see the fruits in future.”
But these clubs and even clubs that don’t yet exist still face the long odds Furlong mentioned above. This week the IRFU pointedly highlighted their ‘investment program’ is focused on the development of the game, rather than purchasing the FAI’s half of Aviva Stadium, but is enough going to those who need it most?
“If you widen the net and get more players in, that’s a great thing – but you also have to add the resources,” Horan said.
“The private schools have a huge amount of money, I’ve seen some schools resurfacing pitches, building facilities we couldn’t dream of at Munchin’s unless a benefactor came in. Then there’s the staff even, S&C coaches...some of the provinces would be envious of the resources these schools have.
“It’s all well and good if we have more players but you need quality coaches to bring that standard up. The guys coming out of Leinster schools are ready to play straight away, others are a bit behind.”
Horan believes some GAA clubs will be “getting nervous” as rugby stretches its tentacles around the country, but will the glass ceiling ultimately affect rugby pick up in GAA heartlands?
Longford Rugby, the most westernly club in Leinster, took 400 people to a recent game in the RDS but the chances of a player making it onto the pitch appear slim.
One 6’9” teenager has been given a trial at sub-academy level with Leinster, while another player moved to Cistercian College on a scholarship— but neither will be making that breakthrough, if they manage it, with the word “Longford” most recently associated with their development.
The club have put a lot of money into their facilities, and boast a set-up that would match AIL standards, according to club PRO Tommy Butler, but there’s still a winding road to elite representation.
“We’ve had players on Ireland U18 sides recently, and other players in the past, but if a player gets through from Longford to that elite level, they’re likely to be very driven. Nothing’s handed to them, they have to play even harder, they have to go to gym and get up early and travel a lot — it’s all on themselves.
“When you look at the schools in Dublin, they’re Man City and we’re Rushden & Diamonds.
“I read of Dan Leavy doing a training session at St Michael’s, while our coaches are volunteers. A great support we get, in fairness, from Leinster is a CDO [coach development officer] and we get 30 hours a week from them. But we need more than that to keep it going. Slashers GAA nearby are putting their own guys in schools and reaping massive dividends.”
Butler does not understand the apathy some hold around the national team as a possibly unrepresentative one, especially having welcomed Ireland players to the club where he was impressed by their efforts and eagerness to help out. But the tilted playing field cannot be ignored.
“It’s not the people, it’s about the advantage you can get at Blackrock, Clongowes, or Roscrea,” he said. “They’re operating academy level coaching, right through the school and especially up to Leaving Cert.
“The one place we feel left out is the elite pathway is so much more difficult when we get to academy level.
We have some guys on trial up in Dublin, but our best guys have to head up to Mullingar or Tullamore or Edenderry after school... it’s very hard for them.
The disparity is not even something the hierarchy dismiss.
Phil Lawlor, the Leinster Domestic Rugby Manager, is a former Ireland out-half with responsibility for the development of the game in the province. Two pathways exist — literally, not just figuratively — with a schools programme and a clubs programme, eventually converging at U18 level.
Recently the number of clubs representatives on a national underage team matched the schools figure, but only time will tell if that’s a trend or an anomaly.
But listening to Lawlor speak, passionately at times when the old status quo is mentioned, if there is a schools-bias at any level, it’s down to talent not any inherent preference.
The 18 rugby-playing schools are monitored by Leinster, with identified players joining a summer programme after Junior Cert level, and it’s undoubtedly an easier relationship to manage for the province due to the structures in place in those schools.
The clubs? The province is split into five geographical regions, where Leinster coaches like Denis Leamy and Trevor Hogan begin the task of identifying talent at age 15, organising weekly training sessions, games and summer programmes.
“We work with 150 players at 15s, and the most important element across the clubs is we never stop looking,” Lawlor said.
“If you don’t make the 150-200 players at 15, it doesn’t mean you won’t be spotted at 16 or 17. The talent will always rise, given the opportunity so the key here is giving them the infrastructure to be the best they can be.
“Just because they have four training sessions a day [in school] it does not guarantee they will be better, the guys at clubs will come through as easily.”
Just as easily? Surely not.
“It is a harder road to travel, that’s fair,” Lawlor says. “There’s more contact hours for the schools players, things are more convenient, and the club player has to do a little bit more, that road is more arduous. But if we want to ensure Leinster continue to produce as we have done, we cannot stop looking, and we will look under every rock.”
126 clubs or schools are affiliated with Leinster, and Lawlor reels off the names like Frawley (Skerries), Brian Deeney (Wexford), Conor O’Brien (Mullingar), Vakh Abdaladze (Coolmine) and Jack Aungier (Suttonians) as examples of players who walked the pathway less travelled.
“A lot of kids have dreams of playing at the top level, and I would say we are giving them the opportunity, and continuously developing it year on year.”
The Shane Horgan Cup is not one that earns a lot of media attention, but given its place at the top of the underage club pyramid, perhaps it deserves more if people truly want change.
There’s no shortage of photographs from Donnybrook when the Senior Cup finals pack in thousands of screaming school jerseys, but what of the unpolished gems that must exist elsewhere?
When will we be satisfied that rugby country is truly representative?
We suggest it may be when a native born Gaeilgeoir is speaking in Irish in post-match — and it simply doesn’t register.
That player may yet be Colm de Buitléar (or younger brother Eoin) from Connacht, who began their rugby careers at An Ghaeltacht Rugbaí — the Connemara club their father Cian set up.
Everything is done through Irish at the club, a stark contrast to some of the schools that won’t even have the national language on the curriculum, marking it out as a club that should be both a welcome phenomenon for non-traditional rugby fans, and a sign of the growing reach of the sport.
What they will feed into Connacht’s three elite development centres remains to be seen, but De Buitléar senior is confident the IRFU structures will make it easier than ever for a genuine talent to make it to the top.
“They have such a good system in talent spotting, that if your school is playing at any level, you’ll be seen by a scout,” he said.
“If you’re good, you’d be very unlucky not to be spotted.
“If they want it enough now, they can make it. It’s all about wanting. Once the want goes, so does the dream.” An Ghaeltacht Rugbaí gives every member of the club a rugby ball, encouraging them to carry it to school and throw it around at home.
When the east Galway schoolboys and schoolgirls leave the sliotar and hurl at home, perhaps then we can say it’s rugby country.