The man plotting a course for Munster's next generation

Ian Costello is determined to build on relationships with the clubs and put the player at the centre of his decision-making. 
The man plotting a course for Munster's next generation

PATHWAY: Munster academy coach Ian Costello. 

Ian Costello walks into the Castletroy Park Hotel, mobile phone gripped tightly to his ear.

It has become a familiar routine at the start of the working week since he returned to Limerick 15 months ago and re-joined Munster Rugby after five years in English professional rugby to head a fast-changing academy.

The daily treadmill of week-to-week match preparations with Nottingham and then Wasps has given way to a more strategic role at his native province as Costello not only plots a course for Munster’s brightest prospects from school or club to senior team but also seeks to improve the direction of travel.

Which brings us back to the phone calls to the head coaches of Munster’s Energia AIL clubs, informing them who he hopes will be available to them for today’s opening-round matches.

The relationship between the clubs, the Munster Branch and indeed the professional provincial set-up has not always been plain sailing but Costello, with the backing of chief executive Ian Flanagan and head coach Graham Rowntree, has made it part of his mission to rebuild bridges for the mutual benefit of all concerned.

One of his first decisions on arrival was to visit every AIL club coach and “just listen” and he heard what proved to be a collective wish for better communication from Munster. There has been regular contact since and last month an open house at the High Performance Centre where both AIL and schools coaches were taken through a training day.

“We just opened the lid and gave them a look in,” Costello said, “and they were quite taken aback by how open and transparent it was.

“We tried to give them a full cycle of experience of what a week looks like, what a training day looks like and it went down a treat. It was all about giving them ideas to bring back to their clubs, where our players are playing but also about building those connections and relationships that we did quite a bit of groundwork on last year.

He added: “We all know the importance of the clubs.

“We all know what Munster’s success in the past has been based on really good schools and a really good club programme and we want our players to be playing in the best environments possible. So some will play European Cup and the URC but we have a huge percentage of our players that are playing AIL and we need them playing the highest standard of rugby each week. So it just makes complete sense that we are supporting the clubs and schools as much as we possibly can, whether it’s through resources, or players, and I think we’re getting there.” 

This evening at Musgrave Park, with Munster losing nine players to the Emerging Ireland squad in South Africa which opened its account yesterday with a thumping win over the Griquas in Bloemfontein, it will be all hands on deck with Rowntree’s squad as academy wings Conor Philips, making his debut, and Patrick Campbell start in the back three against Zebre Parma while up and coming forwards Edwin Edogbo and first-year Ruadhan Quinn have been named on the bench with centre Fionn Gibbons a non-playing reserve in Cork.

If that sounds like pandering to the oft-repeated call from some media and support voices to ”play the kids”, Costello describes a commitment from Rowntree to field younger players only if they are ready.

“Everyone’s route is different,” the academy head said, “but sometimes it’s needs must and this weekend it could be needs must.

“It could be ‘you’re up’ and then hopefully it’s a positive experience and if it’s not we just have to learn from it.

“I think it’s important we do it the right way at the right time, that’s the reality. We want them to succeed long-term and we want sustained success so we talk about underpinning sustained success and that ‘sustained’ word is really important.

“We’ve got to create an environment and programme that gives them the best opportunity of succeeding long-term, playing whatever number of times for Munster, playing Champions Cup and playing for Ireland and if guys get put in at the wrong time or they’re not equipped to deal with the challenges that come with it we may never get to that stage. So between us all in the building we have to make the most informed decisions we can based on what we know about that player and on our own experience.

“The good advice I got was to keep the player at the centre of everything. If you make all your decisions based on the player you won’t go too far wrong so my north star is what’s best for the player and then you’re prepared to fight their corner on that basis.

“That’s what it’s about, the right thing for the player at the right time … but what we’ve seen this pre-season and early season in terms of some of the selections is that there is a hunger to play young players if we think they’re ready and give opportunity.

BRAINS TRUST: Munster Head Coach Graham Rowntree with London Irish Director of Rugby Declan Kidney and Ian Costello. 
BRAINS TRUST: Munster Head Coach Graham Rowntree with London Irish Director of Rugby Declan Kidney and Ian Costello. 

“The real test of that will be when we’re under pressure, do we still stay true to those principles and hopefully this week we’ll see more academy or young pros getting opportunities.” 

Costello is proud of the progress he feels the academy has been made in his 15 months at the helm and the resources committed by Munster for his plans. The academy staff now numbers 17 full-time members and he enthuses about a “phenomenal” team that is passionate about their work. Indeed, three of that team have been promoted to senior squad duties with Andi Kyriacou the new forwards coach, Cathal Sheridan stepping up to performance coach and Clare Farrell becoming senior nutritionist.

“It’s that idea that if our environment is going well, players will succeed and so will staff and we celebrate that as well. Munster have been unbelievably supportive. This was all part of a plan when I was coming back and they’ve delivered on everything they said they would.” 

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