I’ve been a fan of Leinster from afar for many years but had no idea how this provincial rugby team came across its players. I asked Nathan Johns a very talented young writer and Co-Founder of the excellent https://tightspiral.substack.com/ to write an article to explain just where and how they’ve grown such a successful set up over the years.
In the run-up to a Gallagher Premiership clash with Sale Sharks a few weeks ago, Northampton Saints put out a tweet boasting that their whole starting XV was English qualified, containing only three players who were not former members of their academy. This was more of a dig at Sale’s large number of South African imports more than anything else, but still, an achievement to be proud of. The thing is, while impressive, this is by no means unusual to anyone who follows Irish rugby, particularly Leinster. On a weekly basis, few fingers are required to count the number of non home-grown players in coach Leo Cullen’s starting line-up. In last Saturday’s Pro14 final, only Scott Fardy ticked that box (well, Connacht fans will definitely claim Robbie Henshaw, but he went to school in Westmeath and therefore Leinster…). Home-grown team sheets don’t get tweeted simply because they are so regular.
There were in fact more Leinster bred-players starting for Munster on the weekend than there were non-indigenous players lining up in blue. Andrew Conway, Joey Carbery and Tadhg Beirne learned their craft originally in the Leinster set-up, before all moving away in search of more game time thanks to talent back-logs in their position. Carbery’s move was particularly galling for Leinster fans to take, given his prodigious form both at full-back and out-half whenever deputising for Johnny Sexton.
This phenomenon of Leinster-bred men plying their fare in Limerick, Galway or Belfast for a province that is not their home one isn’t new. In the other Irish sides, think of Nick Timoney, John Cooney and Jordi Murphy at Ulster, or Gavin Thornbury at Connacht. Other teams are more than happy to pick up the talent that Leinster deems surplus to requirements, and given recent results, it seems that the Dublin-based outfit makes the right personnel decisions. Ulster fans will be hoping that Cormac Izuchukwu, a rare example of a player who never got a look-in at Leinster and slipped through the cracks to play for another professional side, will be the exception that causes regret.
This idea of the other Irish professional outfits poring through the scrap heap of discarded Leinster youngsters has been doing the rounds aplenty. It is a bit of an easy narrative because it is lazy and doesn’t take into account the individual circumstances behind every player’s departure, but as with all clichés, there is an inkling of truth behind it.
So how is it that Leinster’s player pathway is good enough not only to provide its own dominant group that can secure four consecutive Pro14 titles, but also top up the coffers of their local rivals? For so long now, the answer has been the famous schools system that continues to churn out an endless stream of talent. There are a handful of four or five schools that serve as production lines for the province. Historically, Blackrock College has been the dominant side in the Leinster Schools Cup, an annual tournament that turns pupils, teachers, parents and alumni into cult members disguised as fans of schoolboy rugby – truly a sight to behold if you ever get a chance to take in a cup game at Donnybrook.
Blackrock’s most famous alumni is a certain international who used to wear no. 13, but on Saturday, Conway and Carbery for Munster plus Hugo Keenan were flying the flag for Leinster’s most decorated rugby school. Of late though, it is their rivals located 10 minutes up the road who have had the most success in rearing Leinster and Ireland players. In Saturday’s final, Rónan Kelleher, Luke McGrath, Ross Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin, Ross Molony and Ryan Baird were all former St. Michael’s College stars who were part of the Leinster 23. Add in young startlets Harry Byrne and Scott Penny, not to mention Dan Leavy who had been hailed as Ireland’s back-row messiah before being plagued with injuries – I nearly forgot to mention James Ryan. St. Michael’s Director of Rugby Andy Skehan’s talents for developing young players needs to be bottled up and kept under armed guard.
For the record, the idea of rugby schools producing endless talent is not unique to Ireland, but you will struggle to find anywhere that does it as regularly and effectively as St. Michael’s. I suspect we are not allowed to know the reason why.
There are other schools to go with the big two: Clongowes Wood in Kildare produced Gordon D’Arcy, the Kearney brothers and most recently Will Connors, not to mention Tadhg Beirne who, as we know, now plays in red. Johnny Sexton is not the first talent to come from St. Mary’s, while St. Andrews boasted both Jordan Larmour and Andrew Porter in Saturday’s line-up. There are others of course, but it quickly becomes apparent that the same group of half a dozen or so schools consistently provide the largest proportion of Leinster’s massive squad – 57 players were used during the most recent Pro14 campaign.
These players leave school primed for professional rugby, entering into Leinster’s sub-academy, now the ‘Centre of Excellence’, before progressing up the pathway through the academy and into the first team squad. Noel McNamara, the head of the academy, deserves an enormous amount of credit for consistently maximising their abilities.
Despite the endless production line, there is a problem to do with how these schools have the funding and infrastructure required for all the coaching, S&C and nutrition work required to produce such pro-ready talent; they are all fee-paying schools.
Straight away, you have a rift between the minority who pay for education, and the majority who do not. Most of these schools are in the capital, Dublin, but Leinster as a province represents 11 other counties. With fewer private schools acting as academies elsewhere, children who do play rugby do so in clubs that have much fewer resources. Those that don’t, and it is the majority, instead turn to the GAA, Ireland’s indigenous games of Gaelic football and hurling. Participation rates in these two sports are off the charts in communities all over the country.
It is no fault necessarily of the private schools or the players in them who are still immensely talented, but by relying so heavily on them, Leinster has shut itself off from a massive playing base of potential talent. More accessible sports that don’t require a private education, like the GAA, take up the slack. Ireland has a small enough population as it is, you don’t need to limit your playing population even further by making top-level rugby available to almost exclusively to one demographic.
The bigger the number of children playing, the bigger the likelihood of unearthing the likes of Ryan Baird, the freak athletes that Irish rugby is crying out for. The way Baird man-handled CJ Stander on Saturday was brutally beautiful, but was largely noticeable for its rarity; of late, we are not used to seeing an Irish lock doing such Maro Itoje-esque things. Ireland needs the depth of four Ryan Bairds to ever launch a successful World Cup campaign (Iain Henderson has been up there of late, to be fair).
Something needed to be done. It has been, and the results are starting to bear fruit. Don’t get me wrong, the cultural importance of the GAA to Ireland means that rugby, no matter how many well-intentioned growth programmes are launched into the heartlands of other sports, will never be able to compete in terms of playing numbers. Still, the way to pinch these athletes who don’t go an expensive school is to spot them through the club game. Leinster have recognised this, and duly invest €1.5 million annually into community rugby.
In years gone by, Shane Horgan, Seán O’Brien, even Tadhg Furlong, players from outside of Dublin who did not come up through the posh school system, were rarities. Now, it feels like it won’t be long before players like this can no longer be called an exception. Tim Corkery made his debut recently against Zebre. He went to St. Kieran’s college, the best hurling school in the country, and played that sport at underage level for Kilkenny, a dynasty marshalled by legendary manager Brian Cody. David Hawkshaw, another youngster, played youth Gaelic football for Dublin. Conor O’Brien did the same for Westmeath.
It’s not just an issue of the playing base though. By failing to cross the class barrier for so long, an image of the Leinster rugby fan has developed, one that is inevitable if the majority of your players and supporters come from privileged backgrounds. Gavin Cummiskey, writing for The XV, paints a caricature, but not an altogether inaccurate one, of the sideline of a Leinster schools’ game:
‘Such emotional celebrations are unfamiliar to Donnybrook regulars who quietly gather their mink coats and panama hats before shuffling towards their Land Rovers.’
You get the idea. If you don’t, then read Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s satirical column every Saturday in the Irish Times.
By building the representation in their playing base, Leinster will only do the same for their support. People for too long have felt alienated watching successful rich kids dominate the team-sheet. Could you really blame them? Last year at a school game, the police had to issue warnings after crowd trouble was caused by chants of ‘your father works for my father’ and ‘we pay fees’.
Without wanting to tarnish the Leinster fan base with the actions of a minority, class tension does exist within the game. This alienation is slowly being eroded, and rightly so; no one should be made to feel uncomfortable in sport because of class dynamics. It also doesn’t take a cynic to realise that more people watching equals more cash coming through the turnstiles.
Leinster are finally starting to pilfer more high quality athletes from a wider spread of the population. If they continue to do so while still unearthing countless gems from the minority who go to fee-paying schools, then the already bright future starts to look blinding for their rivals. They were already struggling to keep pace even before the talent fishing net was cast wider, imagine what will happen when Leinster finally exploit their population advantage to the fullest extent possible.