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How revamped Academy is polishing diamonds for big role in Ulster's future

Lining up: The Ulster Rugby Academy Squad of 2019-20
Lining up: The Ulster Rugby Academy Squad of 2019-20
Kieran Campbell
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

The footage on the screen needs no introduction.

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Irish Rugby's most famous passage of play in a decade. The Six Nations. Paris. Sexton. 'Le Drop'. The moment that, eventually, would win a Grand Slam.

By this stage, anyone with even a passing connection to rugby in this part of the world can replay the clip in their mind's eye, recall the feeling as the ball sailed through the air, remember exactly where they were when Johnny Sexton wheeled away and ultimately only stopped running when he found the arms of Bundee Aki some 50 yards away.

Today, though, the focus for the assembled masses is different. Sat in an upstairs meeting room at Newforge Country Club, the members of the Ulster Academy and sub-Academy, or the Alphas and the Warriors if you prefer their chosen parlance, are to focus on the big carry from Iain Henderson, the clear-out from Jack McGrath, the way Sexton looked to the clock as the ball sailed between the posts, not allowing himself to be swallowed up by the moment until visually confirming that it was all over. Detail, detail, detail.

Most importantly, the focus is on the time - 82 minutes, 43 seconds. It's what the fitness gurus here call the "death zone" and, over the next number of hours, it'll be a familiar place to these young men.

That's for later though, next on the agenda in a day that began with an 8am photocall at Kingspan Stadium is analysis. On this particular occasion, a day when the doors to the facilities have been thrown open to both media and sponsors, it's the weekly player-led session.

Players pair up and forensically pick apart a clip of training footage sent to them the night prior before three pairs are called upon to present their findings. Striking is both the detail and the honesty. Unsuspecting players find their shortcomings, both major and minor, called out by their peers in front of a room full of team-mates and coaches. There is nowhere to hide.

"Different people find it hard, I did at the start," admits flanker David McCann, back in Belfast after some impressive performances for the Ireland Under-20s in Argentina this summer. "But you learn people are trying to make you better, make the team better, and you've got to work for that.

"There's a level of honesty and you've got to be responsible for your actions. Everyone is trying to make you better, so that can (mean) a bit of criticism but it's only to improve your game so that you can improve the team."

One player is corrected when saying what he 'maybe' could have done better - the rugby field, we are reminded, is no place for uncertainty - but the input of the coaches is sporadic at best, the thinking being that in the heat of battle players must cope on their own and therefore this should be no different.

When mistakes are made, the finger pointed in your direction is not the only censure. What when forwards coach Willie Anderson was a player would have been called a kangaroo court has in 2019 been remodelled with "positive consequences" in place of forfeits. The basic principle remains the same and two players hoping to sneak in unnoticed after the meeting has begun, quite possibly victims of the maze of doors and corridors leading to the meeting room, are reminded that they now owe the group a karaoke effort.

No time for that now, as the pitch session must begin.

It's here, with the image of Sexton's clock-in-the-red heroics still fresh in the mind, that the players take to the field below.

On a day when multiple European countries record their hottest ever temperature, Belfast is certainly sweltering but players, split into three groups, alternating between attack, defence and rest, are still out there more than an hour after the circulated timetable called for lunch.

Earlier in the day, a coach told players their next session would begin in exactly 11 minutes. This lapse in timekeeping, you can gather, is no accident.

For a group whose multiple mantras consist of "squeeze every drop" and "everybody wants to eat, few want to hunt", there seems a certain satisfaction in pushing the boundaries.

"It's brutal," laughs first-year Academy man Tom Stewart, a well thought of hooker who has just left Belfast Royal Academy and hopes to study structural engineering with architecture come September. "You really have to go to the depths and push each other through. The heat doesn't help either, we're roasting and the sweat is pouring off you. At the end of the day it's all about development, pushing each other and seeing where you can go.

"Every week they're trying to push us and push us and push us and trying to get the best out of us, that's all they're trying to do."

If the previous glimpse of Sexton in the 83rd minute offers one compelling case that there is method to the madness, so too does last season's goings-on at Kingspan Stadium. With the province hitting a nadir in 2017-18, and the resulting parting of ways with Director of Rugby Les Kiss, the non-producing Academy was often cited as a root cause of the senior team's ailing performances.

There have been success stories in recent years, the likes of Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale (below) to name the most prominent, but not enough. Where others talk of a production line, here has been the type of manufacturer that produces a top of the range sports car every so often when what's been longed for is a regular supply of minibuses.

While the exact issue remains the point of some debate, the statistics are thus - of the past 50 new caps handed out by Ireland, two have been Ulster players native to the province they represent. Joe Schmidt, who took over in 2013 and leaves after the upcoming World Cup, will almost certainly go through his whole tenure without granting a debut to a single indigenous Ulster forward.

No matter what way it's cut, for an organisation that states of its academy that "all players must have the ability to play rugby for Ireland" it had been an unmitigated disaster, the perception not helped by the conveyor belt of talent churned out just 90 miles south in Leinster.

Green, in Irish rugby, is not just the colour of the national jersey.

"I'm very envious of Leinster, there's no doubt," says Academy director Kieran Campbell, capped three times by Ireland and the scrum-half when Ulster last won silverware in 2006.

"Munster too and Connacht have had their recent successes.

"The lads found a clip of the 2006 win against the Ospreys and they were saying they didn't realise it was me that passed the ball (for David Humphreys' league-winning drop goal). 'You were slim, you'd no grey long ago was that?'

"That shouldn't be the case. Those young guys are looking for a bit of (Ulster) success and it shouldn't be 2006 that they're going back to.

"We've had good sides, but let's be honest, you've got to put something on the table."

Under Campbell's tutelage, the tide now seems to be turning. Last season, after a mass exodus of experienced stalwarts, Academy players accounted for 111 appearances which included almost 1,000 minutes in the Champions Cup. Emerging talents were numerous, among them Eric O'Sullivan, Michael Lowry, Robert Baloucoune and James Hume. Not since Luke Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy and Henderson emerged in quick succession during Gary Longwell's time heading the Academy has there been such optimism about a young group of Ulster players, doing much to reinvigorate a support base that had been enervated by on and off field events.

Whether this is an especially talented group or the fruits of a new system - Lowry and Hume's age grade was the first of a new pathway that saw them integrated into the system at 16 - can only be known with time.

"I have huge faith in what we've done," asserts Campbell. "Three, four years ago, we wouldn't be having the same conversation. I have to back what we've done, that we've put players in a position to have longevity. With that longevity and a nucleus of players, we'll have a quality team.

"I'm much more confident now. Is that in terms of (saying) 'Six through this year, seven the next year?' No, sport doesn't work like that.

"But if I pick up a Michael Lowry, a James Hume, a Robert Baloucoune, an Eric O'Sullivan, do I say to myself, 'They have to arrive or I'm not doing my job?' Yeah, I do.

"Do I look at Aaron Sexton, an Azur Allison, a David McCann, a Stewart Moore and say, 'It's my responsibility to make sure that they play for Ulster?' 100%."

After last season, that path to the senior squad isn't as far away as it once seemed. The likes of Dan McFarland and Bryn Cunningham, who are both seen along the sidelines during the mammoth pitch session, are offered constant updates on the players.

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