As the Abbey Insurance Ulster Rugby Academy makes a return to rugby this week, Head of the Academy set-up, Kieran Campbell, shares what the players have been up to over lockdown and reflects on the foundations laid in the curtailed 2019/20 season, for the season ahead.
“We were fortunate to have coped well with lockdown,” Campbell said.
“We have a good synergy with the senior team and the home training programmes put in place were excellent, and we have a good base to work from. In the short-term, we want to get the players back and build on this progress.
“We put processes in place during lockdown, challenging our coaches to innovate, which will support us better for our return to rugby from this week onwards.
“We are aiming to improve the high performance pathway as well. The effectiveness of the player pathway, the speed at which we can bring players through, and the number of players, are obviously the markers for us. Hopefully we can accelerate that and improve our processes in the season ahead.
“Longer term, we have to keep striving to increase the number of players obtaining national jerseys and the number of players making our senior squad.
“Dan McFarland tells us that there is a high-level of pathway players now in the senior squad, but he would be the first to say it’s not just about getting them there, but if we are going to be a ‘Consistently Competing for Championships’ team, they have to be competing for places – and taking places – in the senior squad.
“We’re starting to see the embryonic picture of that now with our players accumulating 193 senior caps, but we want to see more go on to be 10-year legacy-providers, who produce performances which support Ulster. The senior coaches are doing a fantastic job transitioning those players in.”
Players in the Academy and sub-Academy who made their senior debuts last season include Azur Allison, Stewart Moore and Ethan McIlroy – with all three making their first senior appearances against Leinster at the RDS in December.
“It’s reflective of the work the players are prepared to put in and the dedication of the staff team,” Campbell commented.
“There’s an incredible team around these players and a lot of investment goes into them. They’re driving their own development and the staff team are really delivering for each player. That is what has helped these players come through and I find it hugely satisfying to see people’s hard work – both players and staff – to be rewarded.”
“The programme is having a huge effect on the players coming through to senior level. Schools and clubs’ integration with the National Training Squad (NTS) programme has seen an acceleration of players coming through. We have combined to make sure each player has the best possible individual programme to develop them. We’re very grateful for the support from the schools and clubs.”
When asked about a shift in recent years to giving more Academy players the opportunity to play for the Ulster ‘A’ team, Campbell is conscious of the need for balance in order to be competitive.
“Over the last four years, we’re starting to see some fruit for the ‘A’ team. We’re starting to consistently compete, but I’d like us to push on a little bit now. It’s been a carefully mapped-out process; we look at two areas – how we make the ‘A’ team competitive and how we get more pathway talent into the team. There is a balance with that, as you need some experience from older players to make sure we stay competitive, which I think we have achieved. It’s getting better and there has been a really careful process as the Academy has been able to nurture more talent and increase the level of representation within that side.
“We sit down with Dan McFarland about getting the best combination of senior players and Academy players to allow the younger players to develop while ensuring the ‘A’ team delivers better performances. Senior players bring with them a level of understanding and standards which helps younger guys accelerate their development.”
The Abbey Insurance Ulster Rugby Academy was well-represented in the Irish U20 side, which had a hugely successful Six Nations campaign before COVID-19 led to the suspension of the tournament. Campbell, who is the Irish U20s Assistant Coach, can’t help but feel for the players.
“It’s very frustrating for the players as there is a significant amount of preparation that goes into a Six Nations campaign. It’s tough that they didn’t get the opportunity to finish what was a successful tournament. We were due to play Italy at home and France away to try and get a back-to-back Championship. The team has developed well, and it’s been fulfilling to see that and rewarding for them to get the results on the back of their preparation.
“After being involved in the previous Six Nations, I know how much effort they put in and the demands on the coaching staff to deliver in the Six Nations is tough. It would have been nice to get the opportunity to finish it this year but there are bigger things happening which we can’t control.
“It’s an incredible environment to work in; you have the best young players within Ireland striving to get places in the team and be part of big games. It’s similar to the Academy set-up; we do a lot of work on skill acquisition, but due to the short time we work together and the calibre of coaches, the intensity is very high.”
“That level of competition and the intense nature of the training brings another level which you see reflected in the games produced at U20 level. The statistics are starting to show they aren’t too far below Guinness PRO14 standard, if not low-end PRO14 games. It’s pretty incredible where that group is heading in their development. Hopefully those players will get a chance to finish and get the rewards for their endeavour.”
“But for now, the focus is on making a safe and measured return to training. The players have arrived back ready to work hard this week, and to make-up for the time that we lost over the past couple of months.
“It has been a slightly unusual start for our new Academy entrants in particular, but I am confident they will be made to feel very welcome as we work towards a collective return to rugby.”
To read more about Kieran Campbell’s thoughts on the new Abbey Insurance Ulster Academy entrants, visit: https://www.ulsterrugby.com/2020/06/campbell-excited-by-new-recruits-for-abbey-insurance-ulster-rugby-academy/