IRFU preparing atheltes for COVID challenges

The importance of programmes such as the PwC sponsored National Talent Squad (NTS) and process of how the IRFU services talent across the country has had to be re-imagined during the COVID pandemic.

Speaking to IrishRugby.ie, Peter Smyth, the IRFU’s Head of Elite Player Development, explained that like every other element of society the elite player pathway came to an abrupt halt last March and there was massive uncertainty as to when and how it would return.

“We are coming up to the anniversary of when games started to be pulled.  Whether that was Senior Cup finals,  AIL, all those underage games around March and April.

We were at a point in time where we literally did not know what was going to happen going forward.  So at that point the best thing we could really offer our young players was remote learning, distribution of gyms from our high performance centres and that was basically it and wait and see where we got to.”

Peter Smyth prior to the Six Nations U20 Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Smyth is acutely aware of the many significant development milestones that have been lost in the intervening period and the impact that this will have had on player development.

“One of the things we have missed out on is national age grade programmes going back to March 2020.  That has unfortunately continued on to this season so we will have had no Irish U18s and U19s for two years in a row.  Obviously the AIL we have missed for two years in a row.  Summer programmes and interpro’s as well have been extremely difficult to get done.

All the clubs and schools action to add to that as well so if you start thinking about the volume of games and the talent ID opportunities and the opportunities the players have missed out on.

There is no point in sugar coating it, it has been huge.  You are talking into the thousands of games that have been missed that players would have had an opportunity to play in.  We’re talking club U14 competitions right through to AIL division 1, right the way to age grade internationals and all the way through and in between.”

Getting to grips with COVID restrictions and the unavoidable impact on long established competitions structures has ensured that Peter and his team had to adapt and seek to create competition formats and remote training programmes that would enable emerging talent to continue their development.

“Going back to the summer of 2020 most of the provinces got out for a 5 week summer programme again a lot of that was pods of 15 non-contact.  We did start off the season with the Energia Community Shield and most of us saw clubs in action for 4-5 rounds.

Following that at the professional level we managed to get the HPC 7s away and to augment that we have had 10 A interpro’s.  We have managed to retain some sort of action at that level.  Some of them have been good some have been a great chance to get our academy and NTS players out there.

Our centres of excellence have been open, when restrictions haven’t been at the maximum.  So we have been able to resource players throughout the provinces in Donnybrook, in Newforge, in Thomond Park and in Sportsgrounds.  Due to further restrictions all those centres have now been closed and the majority of players have now been moved to remote training programmes as well.

An inability to benchmark players by witnessing match performances has meant that the talent development team have had to transfer the vast majority of their IP into a remote learning delivery model to support the talented young players around the country.

“We have adopted a number of new work practices in terms of getting information out to all our young players in the pathway.  There is a lot of CPD that has gone on.  Our various departments in the Union, be it nutrition, athletic development, sport science have been hugely involved with all the players trying to give them as much background, as much information as they can concerning their running programmes, concerning mobility.  Trying to  provide as full a service as we can even though a lot of those pathway players have been removed to remote training programmes.

Obviously our biggest challenge at the moment is just playing the game and access to playing opportunities for our players.   We know that is going to be our biggest challenge to get them back onto the pitch.   The first priority is to get our clubs and schools back playing and then what do the summers look like in terms of the summer programmes and potential age grade interpros series.”

Smyth is acutely aware that there is anxiety amongst young players that feel they may have missed their opportunity.  With that in mind the Academy and NTS system is adapting to the challenges posed by the COVID disruption.

“We have held back a lot of decisions and said, ‘Let’s do another entry process if we can get underage inter-pros away in August and September.  If we can’t get inter-pros away, then let’s do another entry process if we can get the All-Ireland League up and running in September and we’ll do it at Christmas.  Unfortunately for a lot of guys, they are in a holding pattern. What we are saying to a lot of players is that we’re not making any full or final decisions on any players’ progression in any elements of the pathway until they get an opportunity to play the game.”

At present there are 67 players contracted across the four provincial academies.  In recent years the IRFU has been consistent in hitting its KPI of an 80-85% throughput from academy to senior contracts.  There are 57 staff solely dedicated to supporting the pathway across the Irish system from academy managers, to nutrition to athletic development to rugby development.

The National Talent Squad programme is a key element of the pathway supported and integrated with the Provincial Talent Squad (PTS) programe.  The vast majority of these players are all now being supported via remote training programmes.

“We have 65 NTS players spread across the provinces.  Under those NTS players we have eyes on about 255 provincial talent squad (PTS) players.   It total that gives us in excess of 300 players that we have fairly regular contact with throughout the system.  

The only players who are training bases at the moment are the academy players and senior provincial players.  So all of those players bar a couple of exceptions for NTS guys due to injuries in senior squads are being on remote programmes by the IRFU and provincial staff at the moment,” said Smyth

Wayne Mitchell is the IRFU’s National Talent Coordinator

Wayne Mitchell is the IRFU’s National Talent Coordinator and is a driving force behind the NTS programme.

“The NTS programme is a national programme but it is run provincially through the provincial talent coaches and the provincial staff that look after the players on a day to day basis.   

“Currently we have 65 NTS players.  Since the start of the programme (2016) we have averaged between 50-60 players per year that have been identified as NTS players but this year our intake has been a little bit higher due to COVID.  We wanted to make that window a little bit larger to make sure that everyone was given the appropriate time to develop and put resources behind them.”  

A key element of the NTS is an ongoing review process of how players are progressing through the programme.   Players can enter the programme at NTS level 3 at the age of 15 or at a later stage via the Provincial Talent Squads.  There is flexibility in the programme to account for late developers.

“Three times a season Peter (Smyth), myself and the provincial talent coaches and the provincial academy manager sit down in September, December and at the end of the season and players are nominated for the NTS programme and reviewed then as well during the season.  There is a consistent review process that takes place on how these players are performing.  

“When you look at last year’s intake to academy – there was 22 players that entered the academy, 16 players were NTS, five were PTS players, one was IQ Rugby (Irish Qualified).  Seven players went straight from NTS level 2 into the academy.  For a player to go into the academy he has to be ready.  He has to have had the necessary support to be able to perform at that level.”

“I don’t want people to think this is a conveyor belt.  That you come in at NTS3 (age 15-17) and you are going to be a professional rugby player.   You could come into PTS1 (age18-20)  at a late stage and still go straight into the academy.  Five players last year went straight into the academy from PTS1.  We always keep this pathway open for late developers and keep an eye on them because players differ in their journeys.”

Craig Casey training with the Ireland squad

NTS graduate Craig Casey is now training with the Ireland senior squad

The first tranche of NTS graduates are already making a name for themselves at senior provincial level.  Three, Ryan Baird, Craig Casey and Tom O’Toole, have been selected in the senior national men’s squad for the 2021 Guinness Six Nations.  The programme aims to accelerate development of young players so that they are better prepared to flourish at academy level.

“The average age is roughly 20 for when they make their provincial debut at Guinness PRO14 and a good few have already played in the Heineken Cup.   Yes in the past maybe our back three players would have have debuts at a younger age but people like Jack Aungier, Tom Clarkson, Tom O’Toole, Michael Milne, those are props making debuts at 19, 20, 21.  

 Also decision makers scrum-halves Craig Casey, Jack Crowley these young guys are given opportunities at a much earlier age and taking into consideration when they leave school at 18, two years later they are playing PRO14 rugby.  That is why it is so important that we make sure in the NTS programme and in the PTS programme that we make sure we give the players the appropriate support,” said Mitchell