Rugby Union

Ulster Rugby Academy offering opportunities, not pipe dreams

Ulster Rugby's academy offers genuine opportunities to young players from the province rather than pipe dreams. Cahair O'Kane went behind-the-scenes to see the work being done…

Hughes Insurance Academy member Lorcan Dow and Tommy Bowe training at the Aquinas Pitch at Kingspan Stadium, Ravenhill        Photograph John Dickson / DICKSONDIGITAL

IN an Irish News column earlier this year, Aaron Kernan revealed that just one in 250 players that joins Sunderland FC’s academy makes it as a professional footballer.

Compare that with Ulster Rugby’s academy.

In recent years, their conversion rate in taking players into their academy and putting them out through the doors of professionalism has been as high as 85 per cent.

Since it was launched by current assistant coach Allen Clarke back in 2001, there has been a steady stream of internationals moulded between Ravenhill and the Kingspan.

Tommy Bowe, Chris Henry, Andrew Trimble and current captain Rory Best have all come through and been regulars on the Ireland team.

Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy and new cap Stuart McCloskey are among the others who have made the breakthrough in the green over the last 15 years.

One of the criteria they look for when bringing players into the Hughes Insurance sponsored Academy is that they must have the ability to play for Ireland.

Some may call it elitist, but more would consider that it offers realistic dreams to those capable of achieving them, rather than empty promises to youngsters.

This season, Lorcan Dow has made his debut. Dave Shanahan likewise. Jacob Stockdale has gone one better, holding on to his spot in the backline during this international spell.

He is heading towards the end of his second year in the Academy after joining straight from Wallace High School.

A Criminology student at Ulster University, the 19-year-old Harlequins centre is feeling the benefit of his exposure to the first team squad.

“It’s a brilliant setup,” he beams.

“They’re getting more and more integration with the senior team. The like of these sessions here, where the Academy and senior guys train together, that’s pretty exciting.

“When you first get into the setup, you see it’s very professional. You get the chance to develop physically and in terms of your skills before coming into these sessions.”

Kyle McCall has accelerated quickly into a regular first team spot. Alan O’Connor has had plenty of action in the second row.

Sammy Arnold and Rory Scholes have also both had opportunities that have secured them moves in the summer, to Munster and Edinburgh respectively.

Those remaining can see first-hand the opportunity up ahead.

Ireland’s newest cap Stuart McCloskey is walking proof of the sound structures in place. Plucked from Dungannon at the age of 20, he did six months in the province’s sub-Academy, which primary deals with 18 and 19-year-olds just shy of Academy standard.

A year on a development contract was followed by a year on a senior contract. The meteoric rise was completed in Twickenham last Saturday.

The Academy is now headed by former Ireland and Ulster scrum-half Kieran Campbell, who was appointed as Les Kiss was parachuted into the top job.

Campbell, who made 115 appearances for Ulster, had been involved since 2012 before taking over as Head Coach last year.

He began his career with London Irish. There weren’t many academies in those days.

“It’s hugely different. You were basically signed and put into the first team to get on with it. There was no formal programme as such.

“Now, every strand of the guys’ development is dealt with. It’s not just the gym or the pitch; they get that one-to-one analysis.

“Every player sees a member of staff who’s a positional expert. Most of them are former internationals.

“We have mental skills, a nutritionist, really good medical support. There’s nothing left to chance. That’s a far cry from when I was playing.”

Les Kiss has only been in charge at Ulster for seven months but he has offered opportunities.

Tuesday’s training session brought the Academy players together with some of the senior squad, including Tommy Bowe and Iain Henderson, who are on the way back from injury.

“It’s two-way,” says Kiss.

“Once you work back to where you come from, it’s like an energiser. You understand where you come from and you give a bit back.

“They’re also imparting knowledge to the young guys to ply their trade in the eyes of those they look up to in the squad.”

The young players also have to adapt to the demands of this level. It’s a big step up from Harlequins or Queen’s to the Ulster first team.

They train as the first-teamers do, arguably harder given that they are trying to change their bodies to adapt to the rigorous modern game.

They are at the Kingspan twice a week for full training days. That includes breakfast and analysis alongside gym and pitch sessions, which the backs and forwards do separately.

They also have the team run before matches at the weekend.

The province’s structures begin with four regional development squads – North, North East, South and South East. None of them are named after Kimye’s offspring.

There are 18 players aged between 18 and 22 currently on academy contracts, while there are a similar number on the sub-academy.

On top of that, approximately 250 young players from across the province converge on the Kingspan through the summer to use the facilities.

The facilities, the coaches, the environment all provide a solid grounding, but as Jacob Stockdale sees it, it all comes down to the players themselves.

“It’s pretty exciting. They give you the best possible opportunity to play professional rugby.

“They won’t bring in people that they don’t think has that potential. From there it’s all about how much you put into it and how hard you work.”

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