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18 January 2021

The Ulster Rugby Academy Manager was delighted with Ulster’s performance against Leinster ‘A’ on Friday afternoon. 

What pleased you about the performance against Leinster on Friday?

It was the bravery we played with on both sides of the ball. The guys really moved the point of contact well at times. When they got their hands through the tackle, they were prepared to offload which allowed us to build momentum in our attack. We didn’t allow the point of contact to be static and allow Leinster to build structure in their defence.

That bravery in our game, and the precision we managed to keep with that, was important too, particularly when playing against Leinster. It’s all very well talking about being brave with the ball and using that to move the point of contact quickly, but there’s precision that the boys used in doing that as well. Aiden McNulty [Elite Player Development Officer] has delivered a great job with the defence. He was a little frustrated at times in the first half; we got a bit narrow, but what rescued us was the desire to keep working hard for each other and our line speed. We made two interceptions at critical times, which took a lot of momentum off Leinster. Some of the double-hits that were created by the line speed the boys brought were excellent.

It must have been difficult for a lot of these players to have so little rugby. What does it say about them that over the course of these four games that they’ve gone unbeaten and put in impressive performances?

Their dedication and application are unquestionable. We’re looking for a ‘no excuse’ mentality and we seem to be creating that. That embodies Dan McFarland’s ‘Fight for Every Inch’ mantra. These guys really seem to be buying into that; that comes in terms of our preparation to performances. That’s the only thing we can control – so we must control and be good at. Our players are getting better at understanding that; building habits through training and into our performances is everything. That was definitely where we were this week.

We talked about our preparation, and that included training hard with the seniors during the week. It was a real full-blooded session with them, which Dan encouraged and stood by us in the game on Friday. Credit to the guys – they worked extremely hard and were very applied. The habits they build in terms of the way they’re performing is standing to them more and more. They have to keep doing that; it’s something Dan presses to me, and our coaches Aidan McNulty and Jonny Graham with the forwards who has done a fantastic job – all the guys who are working with us – it’s hugely important how the guys prepare and the ‘no excuse, Fight for Every Inch’ mentality.

That, to me, is why we’re improving; it’s also why we’ve had performances in the four games we had even though there have been low levels of exposure to competitive rugby. Ben Carson, who played at 12, hasn’t played any rugby since the Schools’ Cup in March last year. Reuben Crothers was the same coming off the bench. There are a few guys there who haven’t had any exposure, but they committed themselves very well. It’s about their diligence to be the best they can be, but also connected to that is the culture that’s being driven here.

How exciting is it for you to see the player development being put into action on the pitch and how much potential is there in the Academy players?

I’m going to be biased but I believe a lot in our players and the group that is coming through. David McCann, who is obviously a very good player, talked after the game about a lot of them being on this journey from the age of fifteen. That brings intangible stuff in terms of determination to perform for each other, as well as their understanding that they have worked hard since age fifteen. That talent has been evident and developing nicely to this point. But we need to see performances too, and when you get performances like we did against Leinster, you believe more that these guys have the potential and quality to make an impact on the Ulster seniors in the coming years.

I have always believed there’s a level of talent here which we can develop to give Ulster success. Dan believes that as well and is always discussing with me and the other coaches in the Academy about the young guys and who is coming through to make sure these guys are getting their opportunities. That’s the connective piece; not only have these guys got talent and we believe they’re going to come through, I think we’re really connected as well. You saw that in our performance against Leinster, in terms of how hard we worked with the seniors this week to get that performance, but also Dan has given them opportunities with the seniors and they’ve taken them. There’s a good body of work that has taken us to get to this point and there’s still a good amount of work to go, but at the moment, the signs are extremely positive.

I have to be fair to the senior coaching staff – they are giving these players opportunities and watching them in training. The changes are due to only being given opportunities when they’re performing. There’s no “here’s a cap”. It’s “you’re getting a cap because you’ve delivered this against Leinster on Friday afternoon; this is why you’re getting your opportunity”. That’s also driving performance because guys know it’s one thing to be given an opportunity, but you need to take it as well. I think there’s a level of competition coming because we have a little more depth and growth in the programme. It’s driving these guys on and, whether we like it or not, we’ve all been jealous of Leinster for that. The competition within their programme drives their performance to a large extent. We’re hoping that we’re getting closer to that model.