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The future of Ulster rugby is in their capable hands

This week: Ulster Academy

By Michael Sadlier

Published 29/08/2015

Aiming for the top: The Ulster Academy intake who hope to make to provincial and even international level
Aiming for the top: The Ulster Academy intake who hope to make to provincial and even international level

The morning had been a bit different to the norm. Kieran Campbell was pressing the flesh at a business breakfast where his 18 charges in the Hughes Insurance Ulster Academy had been presented to those in attendance.

Having done that, Campbell had then come forward for a question and answer session outlining the Academy's primary and pressing aim of developing and bringing through the stars of the future into Ulster's senior ranks.

And with the professional game's market-place now being so orientated towards big spending - with Toulon top of the pile - the Academy's head man wasn't there to stress the unrealistic prospect of buying in talent to match the French giants.

Instead, his message was the fundamental importance of working within the Irish system and providing the environment to nurture indigenous, or even acquiring locally qualified, talent as being the backbone of Ulster's future and feeding onwards towards the national side.

The system works pretty well too. Iain Henderson, Craig Gilroy, Stuart McCloskey, Sam Arnold - who hails from England, but is Irish qualified - have all graduated from the Academy's ranks while great things are expected of Jacob Stockdale, Jack Owensand the newly arrived Jonny McPhillips who was raised and educated in England.

And it's not about just racing to catch up with Leinster's high-profile success story at their Academy level, rather more to do with tailoring what is needed to provide an essential and efficient pathway into Ulster's senior ranks for a future assembly line of talent.

But Campbell is also keen to stress that the Ulster Academy is also a holistic environment - studying at UU Jordanstown or at Queen's University is part of the package - where life skills are also to the fore even though it is also clearly a highly pressurised zone where results must be primarily achieved on the field of play.

"We tend to hot-house our players a lot more (train them at intense levels)," says Campbell. "We have to do that as we have a smaller rugby population and because that's the way to get the best our of what you've got."

Prop Ross Kane explains things pretty well as he moves from the sub-Academy - which usually contains a dozen or so for a year with a view to moving up to, ideally, a three-year stint in the main Academy - into the main event.

"No matter where you come in from into the Academy, everyone is under a serious amount of pressure," says the former Schools' Cup winning captain with Methodist College.

"Whether it's people coming up behind you wanting to take your spot, or it's you having to perform and meet your goals, if you're not playing to your peak ability, you'll be told and it's very cut-throat.

"Everyone needs to be at the top of their game and in that mindset," adds the 20-year-old who will be with Ballymena this year and whose aim is to also get more games with the set-up at Ulster 'A' level.

Campbell's goal is to bring seven players through from this season's 18-man Academy towards gaining Development contracts for Ulster, the next level up. It's ambitious, but it has to be.

"We have to strive and push and stretch the boundary to attain the level of performance from players that makes them credible for senior rugby," says Campbell who became permanent head of the Academy last March.

"Ulster Rugby demands that we need seven players coming towards Development contracts next year so we have to satisfy that.

"It's definitely realistic and I think we've enough talent in the group to get there.

"We want them to be the very best that their potential can make them be and, hopefully, that will allow them to meet our needs at European and PRO12 level and also international level.

It's about putting building blocks in place to bring through players who can make a difference at the highest level. While signing some overseas talent - and paying big to get it - will always be part of the picture, the backbone of any successful squad, especially in the Irish system, is all about bringing through indigenous ability.

"Very few clubs can be like Toulon," Campbell admits.

"I think one of the strengths in Irish rugby, and I think we've seen it previously within Leinster and Munster, is that they've managed to engineer their own product and players.

"We've got to aspire to that and achieve it ourselves. You always need one or two world class players, as Leinster and Munster have done, but predominantly it has to be from home grown (talent). But we don't always have home grown players," he adds with a nod towards a number of current Academy players who have come from the Republic or indeed from England.

"I think at the moment 70% of the Academy guys are from Ulster and 30% of the guys are from outside Ulster but, again, as long as that guy is a top class young player I don't think we should ignore that either and it will only help and supplement our guys here in growing as well and reaching pro level. We are spreading a wide net because we want our Academy to be the strongest it can be and, therefore, we'll take the best individuals.

"But it's important to recognise as well that individuals (with Irish heritage) are contacting us to become part of our programme and they recognise that this is a good place to be."

Fair enough and new recruit McPhillips is dropped into the conversation with the 18-year-old, who attended school in Sedburgh, Cumbria, having just played a starring role in the previous day's impressive win for Ulster U20s against their London Irish counterparts.

The U20s ("the testing ground to see if they're ready," Campbell says) are just one area where the Academy chief's gaze must fall in a pathway which begins at U16 level. Some will feature for Ulster this season but, primarily, his Academy crop will also be playing club rugby and many will also get run-outs for Ulster 'A', formerly the Ravens.

When it comes to how many actually make it through to the pro game, there is no cut and dried figure as nothing is definite. However, more and more, Ulster are looking to their Academy as the means to fuel their long-term ambitions.

It's hard graft at all levels of involvement, but the goals are worth the work.

"There is no greater reward than seeing them come through," smiles Campbell.

And with that, it's back to building for the future.

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