What Ulster must do to catch up with Leinster
If you haven’t noticed, Ulster’s feeder club, Leinster, have been doing quite well recently. In fact, they seem to be finding international-quality players down the back of the sofa.
As part of the IRFU’s plan for world domination, the stated aim of each Irish province is to have as many players representing Ireland as possible. It is hoped that the rising tide of Irish rugby will lift the provincial ships.
There has always been an ebb and flow of power between the provinces. In the past number of years however, there has been an unprecedented torrent of talent coming from Leinster, feeding the Irish player pool. Leinster’s depth has been Ulster’s gain – we have been the grateful beneficiaries of a number of Leinster’s castaways.
However, Ulster must be concerned at their own dearth of home-grown talent. The trickle of talent Ulster contribute to the Irish player pool is bolstered by a number of players not originally from the province.
Ulster will take some encouragement from the recent emergence of several exciting young prospects in their ranks. However, while the Ulster Academy’s once efficient conveyor belt of players clunks and clicks back into action, we are still some way behind our provincial rivals.
But what can we do to catch up? Here are three reasons Ulster are not producing enough high-quality players and what they can do about it.
1. The Ulster Rugby bubble
In Ulster, rugby remains a sport predominantly played by middle class protestants. It doesn’t take Rachel Riley to work out that, statistically, fewer people playing rugby in Ulster equals less chance of producing top-quality professional rugby players.
To play for Ulster it definitely helps to have gone to one of the ‘big’ rugby playing schools. Granted, the same rugby elitism does also apply to an extent in Leinster, however, our provincial rivals benefit hugely from players from more diverse sporting backgrounds, most notably gaelic football.
Indeed, Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw and Sean Cronin (to name a few) are all converted gaelic players while several others have a background in hurling.
In Ulster, rugby is still not readily accessible across the community and class divides, resulting in the province losing out on swathes of talented athletes from a large section of the population.
A lot more needs to be done to make rugby a more inclusive, cross-community sport. In particular, targeting Roman Catholic and secondary schools as well as forging links with GAA and hurling clubs, would be a good start.
2. After school clubs
Rugby clubs in Ulster must cater for school leavers. At present, players barely out of their school shorts are expected to make the massive leap into from school to club rugby and are understandably deterred at the prospect of being flattened by fully-grown men.
In an ideal world, school-leavers should be able to continue playing and developing with their peers, not immediately thrust into senior rugby which tends to have an emphasis on physical dominance and a massive forward pack.
To bridge the gap, clubs should facilitate a well-organised u20s league. This would help encourage school-leavers to continue playing rugby post-school with their peers and focus on developing skills and tactical understanding rather than size and strength. This would help with post-school participation and produce more well-rounded players graduating into senior rugby.
3. Slipping through the net
Far too many quality players are slipping through the net.
In recent years, Ulster have failed miserably at spotting and developing talent. The rugby equivalent of a ‘brain-drain’ of talent is a problem unique to Ulster. This is because (1) huge numbers of school leavers from the ‘big’ rugby schools (predominantly protestant grammar schools) go to mainland UK to study, and (2) the Ulster youth set-up is notoriously poor at spotting potential.
Those players who are overlooked often leave these shores either disillusioned or determined to prove a point elsewhere. Notable Ulster rejects include Ireland internationals Chris Farrell and Sammy Arnold, British Lion Tommy Seymour and Exeter stalwarts Ian Whitten and Gareth Steenson.
By all accounts, the current Ulster youth system can be ruthless and short-sighted in its approach. Player who lack the correct ‘pedigree’ or fail to peak at the right time are spat out by the system. Given the amount of ‘near misses’ Ulster have had with the likes of Chris Henry, Stephen Ferris and Luke Marshall – all of whom at various points considered an alternative path – it stands to reason there are an untold numbers of potential Ulster players who have slipped through the net.
Ulster must be more proactive in spotting and retaining talent. Ulster should follow the example of top football clubs in this regard. Given that players are the club’s most important assets, scouts should be scouring the island for talented players from all backgrounds, incentivising them to stay with Ulster and developing them as players from a young age. Of course, this takes more time and investment than simply giving contracts to ‘ready-made’ players from the School’s Cup Final but it will be worth it in the long-term.
Ulster now have a set-up – in terms of the stadium and facilities – that would rival most clubs in Europe. To once again compete in the upper echelons of European rugby however, Ulster must now turn their attention to investing in the future and producing home-grown talent. As the saying goes, patience is bitter buts its fruit is sweet.