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There's One Clear Problem With Ireland's Rugby Development

There's One Clear Problem With Ireland's Rugby Development
By Conor O'Leary
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Edit: A previous version of this article indicated that Conor McKeon had not yet played in the Pro 12 - which is incorrect.

The Under-20s is a vital tool for developing young players. Exposing the best of the next generation with similar players from other countries has seen the likes of Handre Pollard, Henry Slade, and Hallam Amos leapfrog into the senior ranks.

Ireland aren't as good with integrating their talent from U-20s level to provincial and international standard. Of the 94 players used for the Ireland U-20s from 2013 to 2015 - only 69 players are still involved in the provincial set-up, with a further five players who are playing their rugby in the Top 14, the Premiership, and the Championship.

Just two players have taken the leap in these years to be capped by Ireland - Robbie Henshaw and Stuart Olding. Compare that with four from England in the same period - Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson, Henry Slade, and Luke Cowan-Dickie.

Delving further into it - just five other players have European rugby experience. Fortunately 22 have minutes in the Pro 12. Only two players who have left their academies - Leinster lock Gavin Thornbury, and Ulster back row Frankie Taggart - haven't had Pro 12 experience. Taggart has played for Emerging Ireland.

Of the remaining players still involved in the provinces - 29 have only played B&I cup, while another 11 have still to play any games.


Of the 25 players who aren't with any provinces right now, five are playing elsewhere. Eight have been released from their contracts, five players from pre 2015 weren't signed, and six are from last year's group should still be available, or could be with sub-academies. 2013 has the biggest attrition rate - with nine players not playing the game anymore.

Those figures don't really reflect what 2015 player is on the rise, or what 2013 graduate is facing the end of their career. It's very understandable for academy players in their first year to have not played any Pro 12 rugby or British & Irish Cup yet. The B&I Cup hasn't started for this season yet either. So if any players that have played at this level already are on a good path for the rest of their careers.

Conversely, players in their third and final year of the academy, or recent academy graduates should need to have some exposure to Pro 12 rugby already if they want to follow the path all the way to international level. There are obviously some exceptions to this, but by and large you need to play some Pro 12 rugby by the end of your final year in the academy.


Of the 11 players from the 2013 class who have played Pro 12 rugby, two of those players haven't played in over a year at that level - Conor Joyce (2013/14), and Steve Crosbie (2014/15). Even Adam Byrne from the 2014 class had his only two Pro 12 appearances back in December 2012 as an 18-year-old.

Crosbie and Byrne face a tough challenge with a lot of young competition ahead of them - Noel Reid has moved up a level this season blocking Crosbie's path - while Adam Byrne is stuck with Leinster A while the likes of Garry Ringrose and Cian Kelleher have leapfrogged him.

At a glance, only five players who graduated in 2014 have Pro 12 experience, while six players from the following year (including two eligible for the U-20's in 2016) have been exposed to senior level provincial rugby. That bodes well for those six players, four of which were part of that 2014 team.


In conclusion, Ireland don't give our best young players early opportunities to prove themselves - but it looks like this is changing. It helps that the 2015 class of U-20's looks to have some star potential including Garry Ringrose, Stephen Fitzgerald, and Ross Byrne who have already made the step up.

Indeed, that 2015 class looks pretty special considering there has only been two months of time available for those players to be given Pro 12 experience, and so many already have.

Here's the breakdown of the players:



Robbie Henshaw (2013)- International Regular
Stuart Olding (2013)- International Fringe

European Experience:

Luke McGrath (2013) - behind Reddan and Boss at Leinster, McGrath is showing signs that he has a long future.
Darragh Leader (2013) - broke through last season, but has since fallen down the pecking order. Squad player for Connacht with a future.
Ed Byrne (2013)- Injuries to props last season gave Byrne a chance. He has some potential, but there are better looseheads coming up behind him.
Bryan Byrne (2013) - You would have expected the young hooker to have had more exposure at this stage, but he's stuck behind Richardt Strauss and Sean Cronin. If he is able to get more gametime ahead of Aaron Dundon and James Tracey - Byrne could start to deliver on his promise.
John Andrew (2013)- Andrew was an unused sub in the Champions Cup once, and has a few caps. He's firmly behind Best and Herring.

Pro 12 Experience:

Jack O'Donoghue (2013)
Josh van der Flier (2013)
Dan Leavy (2013)
Shane Delahunt (2nd year academy) (2014)
Rory Scholes (2013)
Sam Arnold (2015/16)
Garry Ringrose (2nd year academy) (2015)
Conan O'Donnell (1st year academy) (2015/16)
Ross Molony (3rd year academy) (2014)
Ross Byrne (2nd year academy) (2015)
Rory Scannell (3rd year academy) (2013)
Stephen Fitzgerald (2nd year academy) (2015)
Cian Kelleher (2nd year academy) (2014)
Conor McKeon (2nd year academy) (2014)
David Busby (2nd year academy) (2014)
Peter Dooley (3rd year academy) (2014)
Steve Crosbie (3rd year academy) (2013)
Adam Byrne (3rd year academy) (2014)
Darren Sweetman (2013)
David Shanahan (3rd year academy) (2013)
Conor Joyce (2013)
Josh Murphy (1st year academy) (2015)
Sean McCarthy (3rd year academy) (2013)


British & Irish Cup Experience:

Jack Owens (2nd year academy) (2015)
John Donnan (3rd year academy) (2013)
Lorcan Dow (2nd year academy) (2015)
Frankie Taggart (2014)
Jacob Stockdale (1st year academy) (2015/16)
Connor Young (2nd year academy) (2015)
Nick Timoney (1st year academy) (2015)
Tom Daly (3rd year academy) (2013)
Thomas Farrell (3rd year academy) (2013)
Nick McCarthy (2nd year academy) (2015)
Oisin Heffernan (1st year academy) (2015)
Gavin Thornbury (2013)
Peadar Timmins (2nd year academy) (2014)
Billy Dardis (3rd year academy) (2015)
Jeremy Loughman (1st year academy) (2015)
Stephen McVeigh (1st year academy) (2015)
Ciaran Gaffney (2nd year academy) (2015)
Jacob Walshe (3rd year academy) (2014)
Sean O'Brien (3rd year academy) (2014)
Rory Moloney (3rd year academy) (2015)
Cian Romaine (1st year academy) (2015)
Greg O'Shea (3rd year academy) (2015)
Alex Wootton (3rd year academy) (2014)
Dan Goggin (2nd year academy) (2014)
Jack Cullen (3rd year academy) (2015)
Brian Scott (2nd year academy) (2013)
Rory Burke (3rd year academy) (2014)
Darragh Moloney (2nd year academy) (2014)


Harrison Brewer (2nd year academy) (2015)
Peter Robb (2nd year academy) (2014)
Alex Thompson (2nd year academy) (2015)
Michael Lagan (2nd year academy) (2015)
Conor Oliver (1st year academy) (2015)
David O'Connor (1st year academy) (2015)
Sean McNulty (1st year academy) (2015)
Ian Fitzpatrick (2nd year academy) (2014)
Ryan Foley (2nd year academy) (2014)
Joey Carberry (1st year academy) (2015)
Craig Trenier (2nd year academy) (2014)

See Also: Ireland's 2019 Rugby World Cup Team Could Be Even Better Than 2015

Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

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