The Leinster Player Pathway has played a part in each player’s development but as one generation of players get set for life as professional sports people, down the road in Donnybrook the next generation were taking significant steps on that road as the latest Leinster Under 19 trials were taking place.

Under the watchful eye of head coaches Simon Broughton and Andy Wood the 52 players from across the province and across the club and the schools game, were put through their paces before taking part in a game on the 3G Donnybrook pitch.

Broughton is of course one of Leinster’s Elite Player Development Officers having arrived earlier this season while Wood is fresh from leading Belvedere College to a third Bank of Ireland Leinster Schools Senior Cup Final in three years and a second win at that.

Leinster Rugby‘s Provincial Talent Coach Trevor Hogan explains the process and how they have come to this point.

“It begins quite young to be honest and it isn’t strictly about the Leinster Under 19s as a starting point – you have to trace it back a bit further. A big fundamental goal is to encourage as many kids as possible to play the game, get out there, experience it, enjoy it and that’s a massive part of what we do in Leinster Rugby.

“So it’s the Minis and the Community Rugby Officers on the ground building up that foundation and that base so that when we – as in we in Leinster Rugby HQ – take a really hands on interest at maybe 15 or 16 years of age, we already have a good knowledge of where players are at.

“So I suppose it’s at Shane Horgan Cup and the Schools Junior Cup level where we start looking at a Leinster squad system if you want to call it that but without the foundations in place already, you don’t have much to work with.”

Thankfully there is plenty to work with from both the schools and the club system as the over 100 times capped Munster and Leinster lock discusses. But the crucial element at this stage is that it is the first merger of the two pathways.

“These guys are the Leinster 19s for the summer ahead so lads born in 1999 but they are the first age group where the two strands come together, the schools and the youths or the clubs.

“So it’s a vitally important grade with some coming into the Leaving Cert and then potentially leaving rugby after that so we want to show them that this is a very real option if that is what they want to go after.

“The most recent trial was the third trial with these lads and that’s what it is. There is no point glossing over it and while it isn’t the end of the road by any means for the lads not selected this is the nucleus of the squad that will represent Leinster during the summer and into the interprovincial campaign.”

The group of 52 players invited to the most recent trial in Donnybrook has though evolved over the weeks as the coaches look to evaluate the players at their disposal.

Hogan outlines the trial process to this point.

“We would have started out with just players from the clubs so we gave those guys an extra trial as the schools lads were obviously in the middle of the schools cup competitions at all levels.

“It was important for us to give those club lads an additional shop window if you like so we started with 30-40 players in total which included last years Under 18 Youths team and then also guys who had done well with their clubs over the last 12 months.

“In the second trial once the first round of the schools cup competitions was out of the way we invited in players from the schools and really started the integration process. So that boosted the numbers up to 60 plus.

“And again the third trial we were able to bring in lads from the quarter-final stages of the schools cup who we would have been monitoring all along. And that brings us to our 52.”

The four times Ireland capped Tipperary native is acutely aware of the challenges that players face in even getting to this point but that is also where the opportunity lies for him and his fellow coaches.

“For me it’s a really interesting time when you bring the two strands together and as someone who came from a club background I appreciate that because let’s face it, there are differences.

“The most obvious one being that intensive period of training the schools lads engage with in the build up to the cup competitions. But the more you engage with the lads and get them together the more you also see that they are all on a level playing field and more than capable of representing Leinster.”

Three trials down, what do they look for on a trial by trial basis?

As one of two men tasked with coaching the team, Simon Broughton gives an interesting insight into just what he and Andy Wood are looking for.

“It changes on a trial by trial basis so for the one a few weeks ago we were looking at leadership skills and that is quite broad I know but we were looking at it from an attacking unit play point of view. So we actually gave a 30 minute period to the lads for them to create strategies themselves and see what they came back with and then how they implement them through the game.

“We wanted to see who puts up their hand in terms of organisation, who takes on what role and how they interact with each other is also very important. It is fascinating to see.”

It’s a lot of pressure for one trial or indeed three trials but Broughton sees the trial process as the top of a pyramid process rather than as a standalone event.

“Three trials yes but we’ve had many opportunities to see these lads in their natural environment whether it be at training or in matches. Where they thrive on a week by week basis. We also connect with their coaches and our own development officers on the ground so by the time they make it to Donnybrook a lot of it is confirmed for us already.”

Although Broughton speaks with a thick New Zealand accent and didn’t come through the system in the same way that Hogan has, he isn’t alien to the Irish rugby scene either.

A former player with Ballymena and De La Salle Palmerston he also represented Leinster at outhalf during Matt Williams time in charge and later coached the Ireland Women’s team and was involved with Clontarf as they claimed their recent AIL titles.

That being said only a season into his role with Leinster Rugby what has he made of what he has seen?

“It really is a great mix of lads. A broad spread of schools and clubs across the 12 counties each with their own unique attributes and that is something that excites me. Taking players out of their comfort zone and mixing it up with different styles and approaches to the game but with the ultimate goal of representing the Leinster Under 19s.

“For the club players maybe sometimes they may feel that they have something to prove because their competitions are not on TV or don’t get the same media exposure but you look at the Leinster team at the moment and see the Tadhg Furlongs or Adam Byrnes of this world.

“These guys have followed that same path and are now competing with the best that there is out there on a weekly basis. There is no greater inspiration than those fellas right there.”

All back to the foundation, to the Minis and to the pathway.

“Absolutely and I am always saying that to people. You look at the Leinster senior team – both mens and womens – and you see there is a pathway no matter what your background or how you have come to rugby. You obviously have to apply yourself and work very hard but we have diversity across all our teams and that is to be celebrated.

“The encouraging thing for me is the amount of good players being produced within the province at every level. I have to highlight the excellent work done by all the school teachers and club coaches, and credit them with providing the opportunity and passing on their expertise to develop the players to such a standard. Without them and the domestic games staff who provide additional support we wouldn’t be in such a good space.

“The skill set too is a massive factor in that a lot of kids have experience in other sports such as Gaelic football, soccer, cricket and tennis, where the hand eye coordination is already ingrained from playing those other sports. So that background feeds into the pool that we pick from and is definitely an advantage.”

So what next? 52 into 15 won’t go!

“We’ll definitely whittle it down some more” says Hogan, “and now that the schools campaign is out of the way we will have another trial on the 22nd April involving some of the semi-final and final schools cup guys.

“The extended squad will then be given a tailored S&C programme for May and June and we leave them off because obviously that is when the Leaving Cert should be their primary focus.

“But they will hopefully all get through that in one piece and will come back to us on the 5th July and will report to Andy and Simon and the real process of preparing for the Interprovincials starts.”

For all the excitement of selection and the undoubted highs that lies ahead for some of these lads, as with all trials, there will be others that won’t be so lucky. Hogan has sympathy for them but also words of encouragement.

“I wouldn’t have been the best athlete underage and missed out on squads but I came back into it then and made it to Under 20s and it’s the same with someone like Garry Ringrose.

“Look at him now having come through every minute of this season’s 6 Nations but he was another who maybe missed out on squads. That’s all down to him and sticking to the programme and staying focused because his chance came again, and when it did, he grabbed it with both hands.”

Broughton agrees.

“Yes it’s about the Leinster Under 19s at the moment but it is also a great chance for us as coaches to put in place for these lads a programme to track and graph their progress because one road isn’t necessarily the right road for all players, some need a different route.

“So how a player will travel through this time period can vary hugely but this process over the last few months and over the next few months ahead allows us that time with these players to best assess with the player what is perhaps the right way for them.

“So we have a few hats on when we are making our decisions. We are bench marking to see if they can progress to Under 19s yes, but if not 19s is there an avenue for them to go away into a club and come back maybe next season into Under 20s contention or the Sub-Academy or play club games, develop physically and then come into the Leinster ‘A’ framework.”

Like the aforementioned Messrs. Furlong, Byrne and Ringrose there are plenty of other examples with Darragh Fanning, Mick McGrath and most recently Barry Daly getting AIL exposure before bursting onto the Leinster senior scene.

As Hogan concludes, whatever the path, whatever the pathway, it’s Leinster Rugby and more importantly the game of rugby at the end of the tunnel.

“There will be those disappointed but we can’t lose these lads. It’s so important that they remain playing rugby at whatever level. It goes back to the foundations. Playing the game, enjoying the game.

“But we would like to think that wherever they end up after going through this process that they will have an understanding of the values surrounding Leinster Rugby – about a constant work rate and ethic, about the humility to keep improving and the importance of developing the character to deal with adversity.

“That will hopefully stand to them in a lot of ways not just on the rugby pitches.”