Ulster Rugby must go back to school says McLaughlin
BRIAN McLaughlin believes Ulster Rugby must work harder at grassroots level to harness homegrown talent in order to produce a successful professional team in the years to come.
The province’s former head coach points to constraints on teachers in the school system and the impact that a successful Northern Ireland football team has had on rugby participation, as factors that may hinder the development of young rugby players.
The former RBAI Head of PE is certainly well qualified to give his views on the way forward, with his vast experience of coaching rugby at underage and senior level.
He joined Ulster in 2009, having been skills coach to the Ireland senior side under Eddie O’Sullivan between 2005 and 2008. McLaughlin also coached the Ireland U21s, Ulster U20s and has been successful at schools level, taking teams to nine Schools’ Cup finals, winning five of them.
After being deemed surplus to requirements in 2014, when he led Ulster to a European Cup final, he worked in the Ulster Academy and now runs a successful rugby consultancy business.
“Football has continued to grow in strength as a result of the success of Northern Ireland football team. This could prove to have a negative affect on participation levels in rugby,” said McLaughlin.
“Boys are able to access many opportunities to attend soccer academies and a lot of grammar school pupils, who might traditionally have played rugby, are now choosing to play soccer.
“Schools with a very strong rugby ethos are still okay but in the smaller schools it’s very difficult. Schools don’t have the resources to put the same energy into extra curricular rugby as they have done in the past.
“Ulster relies heavily on its club coaches and school teachers to develop and nurture rugby players.
“Teachers and coaches at this level do a fantastic job but further investment at the grassroots is essential.
“It is a concern that we may not be able to produce our own talent. Summer camps are all very well and have a role to play in widening participation.
“But I think we need a greater and more intensive Ulster Rugby presence in schools and clubs across the province. We need to give young players at minis, U12s, 13s and 14s the tools they need to grow into quality rugby players.”
“Efforts must go into getting as many young people as possible involved in rugby, the more people you have playing
“The more contact Ulster coaches and development officers have with them, the greater the likelihood that you’re going to find the next Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Stephen Ferris or Iain Henderson.
“None of them went to the ‘big’ rugby schools. At the minute I don’t think that’s happening. It may be a resource issue for Ulster Rugby but it should be a strategic priority.”
Much has been made of the conveyor belt that is the Leinster Academy but McLaughlin points out that the schools there do not have the same constraints as those in Ulster.
“There is no comparison – our schools are more or less all government funded. In Leinster, there are a lot of private schools and the vast majority have their own directors of rugby. That may partly explain why Leinster are so strong at the minute,” he added.
“They were at their peak when they played us in Heineken Cup final. We were very much, in my opinion, a developing side. That Leinster era was coming to an end but they rebuilt very quickly. I think that is testimony to the infrastructure they have in place for youth rugby.”
McLaughlin also believes Ulster Rugby could learn from other sports as far as the development of elite players is concerned.
“I have a daughter involved in the Ulster Hockey Talent Development Programme. There has been a pathway for her since primary school,” he explained.
“A large number of young people are involved and are retained in the programme for a number of years to ensure their skills and knowledge of the sport continue to develop as they grow and mature.
“Holiday camps and weekend training sessions occur on a frequent basis right across the province. This is nurturing a wide and firm foundation for the development of the hockey players of the future.
“A similar approach to the development of young rugby players, with an emphasis on skills acquisition would be beneficial. This would help greatly when the young players enter the current structure at the ages of 15/16.”
McLaughlin also insists Ulster must not allow talented players to slip through the net as has occasionally occurred in the past.
“Not only do we have to carefully seek out the top players of the future but we also need to make sure we keep them and not let them go like we have on occasions.” he stressed.
“For example, Ulster let Chris Farrell and Tommy Seymour, both of whom were educated here and played for Ulster, go and they have both gone on to play international rugby.”