Ulster Academy Mid-Season Review

Ulster Academy Mid-Season Review

We caught up with Abbey Insurance Ulster Academy Manager Kieran Campbell to get his thoughts on the season so far…

What are your thoughts on how things have been going in the Academy so far this season?

KC: Very positive at the moment. During the summer, we identified we wanted to be tighter in our succession planning. Obviously Dan (McFarland) was in a little later, but he had been in contact and had full awareness of what we had within the Academy programme, and what he required for supporting the seniors.

So far this season, we’ve seen a really strong transition of players into the senior team and that’s been brought about by good planning and identification of when these guys should be brought into the team by Dan. In terms of the five new caps (Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Angus Kernohan, Michael Lowry, Eric O’Sullivan), it’s been really pleasing to see what they have delivered when called upon.

Those five new capped players – it must be very satisfying to see the positive contributions they have made on the senior team, and they aren’t just there to fill out the squad?

KC: I think that has to be the ultimate objective of the Academy; to provide guys who aren’t just there to fill gaps but will deliver a level of performance that helps the team to be successful. Also, importantly from our end, and something that has been said to me by Rory Best, is that there’s now pressure – pressure on senior players to maintain their place and that drives performance.

Individually, there have been some really noticeable performances. I’m thinking of Michael Lowry against Racing 92, when he gained the most metres of any Ulster player in the competition since it’s been recorded. It’s also worthy to mention Eric O’Sullivan, particularly his away European Cup performance against Scarlets – 22 tackles and 21 rucks plus no penalty scrums in 14 scrums – that’s a pretty impressive display for a young prop.

I think the importance of that too is reflective in the desire, the aspiration for our players to be ‘CC’ players as Dan calls them, and what he means by that is Champions Cup standard players.

With the introduction of Dan McFarland as Head Coach this summer, what sort of impact has that had on the Academy setup?

KC: I think the strength of Dan is his detail. It was clear from working with him that he quickly got to grips with what we had in the Academy and he had a good understanding of how the players would fit into his succession planning going forward.

There have been no huge infrastructural changes, but I think the big changes have been in the determination of how we coach. Dan has a ‘no excuse’ mentality when it comes to the development of players. His philosophy is to coach hard and one of the statements he has brought in, which I really like, is that every player is not good enough yet – that’s something he’s very strong on and he accentuates the ‘yet’. That’s certainly something that’s driving us as a team to coach harder both at Academy and senior level. The manifestation of that is the quicker acceleration of players to perform at senior level.

The Celtic Cup presented a new format and a good opportunity for many Academy players to get significant game time at a higher level. What were your thoughts on that campaign?

KC: It was fantastic for us. It allowed us to ground players in an environment that forced them to deliver through a game and a training process that is very similar to the senior setup, where it challenged them to deliver back-to-back, week-to-week.

I think the other important aspect is that it has given Dan and the other senior coaches a good insight into our players and shown how they’ve developed in that type of environment, which has probably given them confidence to bring them into the seniors.

It also allowed us to see where guys need to develop so we can give them really good personal development plans that they can take back to their clubs, and that is reflected in the fact that they’re driving club standards and their own performance better as well.

The international fixture against Uruguay also gave that squad and coaching team an opportunity to test themselves against a good quality Southern Hemisphere side?

KC: Not only was the Uruguay victory a really good reflection of our depth against a side who are going to the World Cup, but it also gave us a great chance to invest in our pathway through our Talent Coach Programme – we were able to bring in Mike McKeever from our schools programme as well as Jonathan Gillespie and Jonathon Graham from our Development staff who learned a lot through their involvement.

Importantly for us, that investment is seeing a return on the pitch, not only that night of the Uruguay game but also Mike McKeever as Assistant Coach will join Willie Falloon, who is also in the Talent Coach Programme, as Head of our U18 Schools Programme for 2019. And of course Jonathan Gillespie and Jonathon Graham delivered that fantastic result for the Ulster U19s against Australia.

So that stands us in good stead in terms of our coaches going forward, because our players will only be as good as our coaches, so thankfully we are starting to see coaches who have the ability to deliver performances at that elite level and hopefully that will continue to develop.

Earlier in the season, we saw Angus Curtis and Tom O’Toole rewarded with upgraded development contracts, and that also opened a place for Angus Kernohan on the Academy roster, who has done very well.

KC: I think it’s great reward for Tom and Angus for what they did at the end of last season and they were critical in the team’s qualification for the Champions Cup. Obviously, Tom has really backed it up again this season and Angus has been unfortunate with injury.

I think Angus Kernohan is a great example of what we’re trying to create here at the moment. He has really developed well from the year he spent in the Sub Academy and has come in and taken his opportunity in the Academy. The fact that a player of Angus’s quality only just broke into the Academy shows how competitive the whole pathway is, and that is what we need. However, we’ve also got to respect what Dwayne Peel and Jared Payne have done in getting that guy to where he is, and the 11 caps he has already earned are testament to the work those guys have been doing with him – obviously Dwayne from an offensive and Jared from a defensive perspective.

If you look at it from a back three perspective, there’s Robert (Baloucoune) as well, who has been performing very well, but there’s also Aaron Sexton who’s coming in behind, who was the top try scorer for us in the Celtic Cup with 7 tries in 6 games. You have to work extremely hard now and, as Angus knows, there’s pressure beside him in Robert and pressure coming behind him in Aaron, but that’s what drives competition and performance.

Looking a bit further down the pathway, can you give us your thoughts on the age-grade campaigns this year?

KC: I think we’ve been hugely competitive across all the age-grade teams. We had great success to a point with our U18 Schools, and we were unlucky not to retain the championship when we were beaten in a playoff game.

The U19s were also very close and very competitive, and finished off their programme with a defeat of the Australia Schools team. So that’s been a great credit to those guys and their development, to be able to go from an inter-provincial campaign where they had a certain level of success then go on to put out a really good performance against Australia. That can’t be taken lightly either. Australia beat Munster, they beat Ireland then they went on to beat two Scottish sides comfortably so we’ve got to be very happy with that level of performance, and it just shows the growth of those players within the pathway.

And the Ulster representation at National age-grade level?

KC: At this point we’ve already had four guys capped at U19 level and two missed out with injury, plus we’ve got eleven selected in the U18 programme, so we’re very positive about that. As we know, there’s still a long way to the Easter games for the U18s and U19s, and we do expect more guys to earn more representation there.

We’ve also got a number of guys featuring at the moment for the the Irish U20s in the two games over Christmas, so again we’re making strides there and starting to see a greater representation of young Ulster players within national age-grade squads, which bodes well for the future.

Another of our Academy players, Iwan Hughes, has also been featuring well for the Ireland 7s team.

KC: The 7s pathway is a significant part of the player development process now. We’ve seen some great return already with Nick Timoney and Robert Baloucoune, who had spells on the 7s circuit. Iwan is using that as part of his development. He is featuring for the Irish U20s, and he also featured in the recent success in Dubai where the Ireland 7s won the competition, and he was an integral part of that.

It’s great that some of our players are not only getting international exposure in the 15s game, but also the 7s, and the success in terms of their development and where they’re getting to after that, is a great reflection of how that contributes to the development of the players.

With a significant number of Academy players already winning senior caps, how does that affect your key targets for the rest of the season?

KC: I think it’s about making sure that those players who are in the senior squad keep delivering the level of performances that they have been.

One of the big things for us, and it’s a bit of a cliché, but you’ve got to keep getting better, and for us that means it’s not good enough to rest on our laurels and think that what we have done to this point is good enough for the season.

We’ve got to impress on the senior coaching team that there are more guys who are ready to step up and deliver at that level. So it’s up to us, as Dan says, to coach harder and make sure those guys push on and we exceed our target for this year. But I think the important thing is that, if we do exceed that target, the boys who come in need to put in performances that keeps them in the system as opposed to coming in for one or two caps and dropping back to the Academy.

So that’s where we are at the moment. It’s certainly exciting, it’s certainly giving us a great platform for building on again going into the New Year.

People keep asking me am I content, but I’m never content. I’m very driven and have a desire to keep moving above and beyond into 2019, and we have to make sure the guys who get capped are of the same calibre, if not better, than the guys who have already been there.