In the first of a two-part interview, Leinster Rugby’s Head of Rugby Development Phil Lawlor speaks to Des Berry about the underage club structures in the province ahead of the Tom D’Arcy Cup starting this week.


That is the message from Head of Rugby Development Phil Lawlor to all those holding onto the

The building of the beast that is Leinster Rugby is a toe-to-head operation that begins in the clubs, around the province.

Thousands of minis players are introduced to rugby long before they go on to rugby playing secondary schools.

For others, those boys and girls never leave their local clubs until the areas – South East, North East, Midlands, North Midlands or Metro – come calling in what is the first significant step towards serious representative rugby.

The pathway is clearly marked along the way from minis and youths at clubs to the areas, the provinces and the country.

“The kids of today have a completely different environment to grow up in than kids of 15 -20 years ago,” says Phil.

“They’ve got more access to more information. They are more knowledgeable about what is happening in the world.

“They understand better what it takes to become a high-performance athlete and they are actively looking for that,” shares Phil.

The ex-Leinster and Ireland forward looks no further than a rival organisation when it comes to guiding players into and up through the system.

“If you look at the GAA and what they are doing within their counties, their centres of excellence and the streamlining of players into the minor programmes, it is pretty comprehensive.

“I’ve talked to a number of GAA clubs around what they are looking to do for their players. They want to be part of their player’s journey through adolescence, to be able to help them on the way.

“That means offering additional life skills, such as mental health training and nutritional health education,” he adds.

“They give that information and bring them in as part of the club. That is all about making the players feel like they belong to the club.”

In comparison, Leinster is not quite as comprehensive in the programme it offers players, perhaps losing out on the natural, century-old dream to ‘play for the county’ which is so ingrained in gaelic players.

While Leinster is nicely sub-divided into 12 areas for gaelic games, it does not have the same
advantage in rugby where the five areas place extra demands on players, in terms of travel and time investment.

“There is another layer we understand that what we must do is continue to evolve to make our programmes as relevant to today’s players,” he says.

“Successful clubs are linked from mini to youth to adult where everyone knows what everyone is trying to do. It is all under one umbrella. They evolve continuously to make sure the players, coaches, managers and families have the best experience.

“What you are looking for is the four-year-old to become the 64-year-old with a lifelong journey as part of your club.”

Easier said than done.

“How do you do that? There are so many clubs and organisations competing for talented kids. What is the USP (unique selling point) for your rugby club?

“We are expanding what we as Leinster Rugby are looking to give to the players around the region in terms of mental health, in terms of nutrition and in terms of lifestyle choices.”

This more holistic approach can be mirrored by clubs and is by some, but it needs to be part of what the rugby communities provide for its young members across the province.

“I believe that clubs can provide a broader more aligned programme for its players that train on a Tuesday and Thursday night.”

“Don’t get me wrong there is unbelievable work going on in clubs across the province by fantastic people who give freely of their time.

“What I am saying is that with a more joined-up approach within our clubs we will be able to offer a greater experience not just to the players and their families but to the coaches and numerous volunteers involved.”

There is the trickle-down effect a superior service can have from Leinster Rugby at the top to the provincial clubs around the province.

“By continuing to work with our clubs we as a rugby community can offer more to our young players, creating better more enjoyable environments that cater for the needs of all players,” says Phil.

This all comes back to recognising that teenage talents develop at different rates, depending on any number of influences.

“Just because one player is better than another at one moment in time doesn’t mean it will always be so,” he stresses.

“This is where the club can help the player who didn’t make an area squad?” he says.

“They can keep those players motivated, helping them to believe that it could be different the next time the South-East, North-East, Midlands, North Midlands, Metro or Leinster come looking.

“There are many examples of players who didn’t make it the first time. For example, Jamie Osborne didn’t make the Leinster Youth side at the first time of asking. Now, look where he is.

“Leinster never stops looking.”

That piece has to be understood and the organisation is selling that in conversations with the clubs, in terms of coach education and player development.

“The clubs have to think long-term about the development of their players. They have the facilities. They have the personnel,” notes Phil.

“Now, they just have to think differently. How can they add to what we have just spoken about? For example, instead of doing two nights a week and a match at the weekend, they might offer a third night based on game analysis, nutrition, life skills etc.

“It doesn’t have to be every week. But, we do have to offer a broader aligned programme, showing the player that the club offers more and is a great place to be as part of the local community.

“We’re trying to sell that at the moment in our conversations with the clubs,” he admits.

“We are trying to get away from this idea of a few individuals dictating at different levels and all areas working in silos. We want to get to the place where people are coming to a club that knows what it is doing from top to bottom, is aligned and that new people know what is expected and add value to make it a better environment for everyone at the club.

“What does Leinster do at the committee level? It provides oversight, regulation and competition.

“They do trojan work ensuring that over 14,000 players get rugby through a season that stretches from September to finals day on the May Bank Holiday weekend.”

The Tom D’Arcy Cup is the pinnacle of the boys’ Club Age Grade programme, just like the Schools Senior Cup.

“All the work that is put into minis and all the way up to the U18s is seen in the D’Arcy Cup,” he stresses.

“The quality of this competition is a statement on where club rugby is around Leinster and a reflection of the growth of the players from minis to U18s.

“Ultimately, this competition is a barometer of where club age grade rugby is, in terms of the participation and the quality of the competition.”

2013 – Winner: Gorey; Runner-Up: Mullingar.
2014 – Winner: Navan; Runner-Up: Wexford Wanderers.
2015 – Winner: Navan; Runner-Up: Skerries.
2016 – Winner: Tullamore; Runner-Up: Wexford Wanderers.
2017 – Winner: County Carlow; Runner-Up: Skerries.
2018 – Winner: Longford; Runner-Up: Boyne.
2019 – Winner: Naas; Runner-Up: Navan.
2020 – Winner: Wexford Wanderers; Runner-Up: Tullow.
2021 – Covid Interrupted.
2022 – Winner: Wicklow; Runner-up: Wexford Wanderers.