Becoming a professional rugby player in Ireland requires talent, hard work and often, a tremendous amount of luck.
The pathway generally involves representing a province throughout the age grades, hopefully culminating in national underage honours and the procurement of a much sought after spot in a provincial academy.
There are only four provincial academies in Ireland; Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster. With these only taking in six to eight players per year – at max, that’s 32 players per season. So what about all the other young players who slip through the net and don’t secure a spot. What other avenues can they take to pursue their professional dream?
Well, that’s where South African duo Dan van Zyl and Johan Taylor come in.
The hugely experienced former Springbok and Super Rugby player, van Zyl, has been involved in Irish rugby for 12 years in coaching and player development roles with Leinster Rugby while Taylor has a wealth of coaching experience including a successful stint as head coach of Sri Lanka and top domestic roles with All Ireland League (AIL) sides, most recently Naas RFC.
Van Zyl and Taylor are coming to the end of their first season with Rugby Academy Ireland, a full-time residential rugby academy in Co. Kildare which they co-founded. It provides members with the opportunity to train as full-time academy players in the hope of securing a professional contract.
“When we started researching, I don’t think there were any of these types of academies in Europe,” van Zyl told Pundit Arena. “Obviously, southern hemisphere, there is quite a few or too many I suppose. It was also because of all the players that they produce to cater for the guys not going into the mainstream academies. In Ireland, as you say, what we find is a challenge at the moment is to make people aware of it because it’s not being done before so that players know that there is another pathway that if they don’t get picked, they can go into it.”
The former scrum-half wants to provide the opportunity for players to be in charge of their own destiny and to give them another pathway into a professional setup.
“I worked for Leinster for 12 years in player and coach development. We sat in a selection meeting, eight guys selecting and the vote might go five-three against a certain player and that player is gone where if there was another coach in it, it might have gone five-three the other way and that player could have been in the 20s setup or Irish setup or whatever.
“That started playing more and more on my mind, I guess. We use the phrase, ‘are you lucky or are you unlucky’? Who was your coach at a certain time? So a guy coming into an U18s setup, if he’s getting coached by whoever and that coach is into an elite pathway, that player has a good chance of going there but if he’s not then he might fall through.
“The feedback that was given to players, a lot of the time (it’s) that they’re too small to make it. CJ Stander was too small in South Africa and he’s a legend in Ireland. There are players too small in Ireland that are big enough somewhere else.”
It’s interesting that Taylor, in his stint as Sri Lanka head coach, brought Chris Cloete to the South Asia island country to play for a club called Kandy back in 2015, which reignited his love for rugby and ultimately set him on the path to signing for Munster two years later.
It’s never too late to make it.
And this is the mantra which van Zyl and Taylor continually reinforce.
“Yeah, (the goal is) that they can be in charge of their own pathway,” van Zyl said. “That their pathway is not blocked by the perception of a coach or injury. There’s no time limit really on it. Obviously, the younger the better but there’s no age profile or anything like that.”
One of the biggest challenges in providing players with coaching to become professionals is having an adequate facility for such an environment. Thankfully, van Zyl and Taylor seem to have found the perfect location.
Rugby Academy Ireland is based on the grounds of the 4* Kilashee Hotel & Spa in Co. Kildare and it’s difficult not to be impressed with the facilities.
A brand new rugby pitch, an all-weather pitch, an indoor hall, two gyms, a swimming pool, a hydrotherapy pool, a fitness studio, dedicated video analysis rooms, on-site accommodation and a clubhouse where the players can unwind with video games, table tennis and pool are just some of facilities which RAI has to offer.
The location is also important. The academy is situated outside Naas in Co. Kildare close to the M7 motorway which makes it easily accessible to most parts of the country. For international players and visitors, a 40-minute drive to Dublin Airport is ideal.
Van Zyl and Taylor offer various options and packages to players of all ages who want to join their academy but the number one product is the full-time package where players live on-site (€16,900) or commute to the academy daily (€14,850).
“Our main product at the moment is the full-time academy where players, obviously, 18+ will live residentially here with us or they can come in and out on a daily basis,” Taylor said.
“So essentially like a college. That is our prime product. After that, we have a student package with players studying at university or colleges that can’t come in full-time. They can come on a daily basis or a bank holiday, they will pick the amount of days they will come. We will obviously keep track of them and send them information by email etc. It’s the same with the secondary school projects that we have. It’s the same principle, the player will come on specific days to us but we will keep tracking them the whole time.”
In ‘The Jersey: The Secrets Behind The World’s Most Successful Team‘, a book by Peter Bills on the history of New Zealand rugby, former All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith said, “you need to make sure you are developing a career and developing as a person because professional rugby union is a short-term prospect.”
This is echoed in van Zyl and Taylor’s philosophy for Rugby Academy Ireland.
Not only are the players training like their academy counterparts in the provinces in the hope of achieving a contract but they are also involved in other aspects to enhance their career development.
Coaching courses, strength & conditioning courses, refereeing courses and English language courses for their foreign players are available to members so that if they can’t make it as professional, they have something to fall back on.
“But again, even if they don’t make it, we do make sure they qualify in strength & conditioning, coaching,” Taylor emphasises.
“There are other roles in rugby that they can pursue. Analysis for example. That is a very important part for us. If rugby doesn’t work out for you, you can immediately walk right into a gym or a team environment. Because let’s be honest, there’s going to be a lot of guys that are going to get injured or are just not going to make it. So what is Plan B for them?”
Van Zyl continues:
“Guys did an APEC qualification this year. The one player who I said it wasn’t for him, he finished his APEC qualification so he can become a strength and conditioning coach. He’s qualified to work as a personal trainer and as a coach in the UK and in the States…All of those things play their part.
“Like Johan said before, all the guys would have Stage 1 and Stage 2 coaching courses, they’ll have SAQ (speed, agility, quickness) qualifications, they’ve done the ‘safe rugby’ course, ‘rugby ready’ – so they can go and walk straight away [to employment].”
But of course, the main focus is on their number one goal, getting players a spot in a professional setup and to that extent, van Zyl and Taylor have been pretty successful.
They have taken in six players who are on the full-time programme and many of them have secured spots at overseas clubs. An American player was with RAI for three months and he’s now playing for the Houston Sabercats in Major League Rugby (MLR). A former Ulster schools player is now playing in New Zealand, another player went on trial with Aurillac in France, another with a Serie A club in Italy, while a fifth player is currently on trial in the US.
We are very proud that Gauthier Petit another 1 of our players is on trial at Stade Aurillacois France, hopefully all learned this year will stand 2 him @Murray_Kinsella @Sean_McMahon89 @AgentsRugby
Keep the dream alive!#HighPerformance #PlayerDevelopment#Dreamcometrue pic.twitter.com/mcXZaMN2Iy
— Rugby Academy Ireland (@academy_ireland) April 10, 2019
Interestingly, the player who is currently plying his trade with Aurillac, Gauthier Petit, is from Belgium and van Zyl is keen to give opportunities to those from Tier 2 nations. He has also received some encouraging feedback from other clubs who have taken on some of their players.
“The club in Italy, having spoken to them about the player and about future relations, they said ‘if that’s the quality, please, we continue it.’ It’s Torino so [that’s] Serie A. But again, it’s a foothold. They play one year in Serie A and then Eccellenza and before you know it…
“What we try to say to the guys is professional rugby is so different from one country to another. A professional player in Ireland is highly sought at the moment. But is the level in the USA the same? Is the level in Italy the same? Is the level in South Africa the same? You know, to be a professional player, we believe every guy can be depending on his ability and where you go to.”
Van Zyl and Taylor are the only full-time coaches involved in RAI but they utilise the experience of other coaches who come in on a part-time basis. Mike Ross, Bernard Jackman, Denis Fogarty, Tony Yapp, Eoin Sheriff, BJ Botha and Johne Murphy are just some of the names who have helped out.
It is very much player driven. If van Zyl and Taylor bring in a winger, they will strive to secure the services of a coach who is an expert in that area, for example.
The South African duo are also excited about the prospect of taking in female players and they cite a lack of a female rugby academy in Ireland as an opportunity. Rugby Academy Ireland has recently completed a female rugby masterclass session led by recently retired Ireland international Alison Miller.
— Rugby Academy Ireland (@academy_ireland) April 17, 2019
The appetite is certainly there and they have enrolled two Transition Year students on a full-time basis, both of whom have ambitions to play for Ireland.
“If you take girls, not one of the provinces, I don’t think, is going to have a girls academy. Where we’ve got the perfect infrastructure for that,” van Zyl said.
“Because there are girls that are really, really motivated. At the moment, we have two transition year students that will come here full-time. They’re young girls that want to play for Ireland one day.
“There is definitely interest in that and I say we’re lucky enough to attract the two girls already and hopefully, we’ll get a few more for the transition year programme we’re running as well.”
Currently, van Zyl and Taylor are coming to the end of their first season with Rugby Academy Ireland, with April being the month that players generally go on trial.
The last couple of months has been a steep learning curve for the duo and they stress that they are not in competition with the provincial academies, rather they want to offer another opportunity for players who miss out on those finite places.
“Our vision is to be true to what we say we are,” van Zyl said.
“That’s why that magic number, we’ve never really spoken about it, but probably around 16-20 guys. We don’t want to be a team. We want guys to go out and what they learn here, go and play for their local clubs and so on. So it’s really about coaching the individual.
“Outside of the four main academies here, we want to be the next in line for players to progress into a professional setup. Obviously, [the] relationship around that, can we develop that? That a guy has missed out at a younger age, he’s matured over the year, he’s got a bit of size, he’s come to us and we improve his training age. Because what I felt, again, what has happened most is that a guy gets picked into the academy, his training age goes there, the guy with the same ability doesn’t get picked into the academy, so he stays behind.
“So we try to offer that guy the same sort of programme so that in a year’s time, they change physically, mentally, all of that but in a year’s time, he hasn’t lost out on the training age of it.”