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Ulster Rugby Academy: Season Review

Kieran Campbell reflects on the season.

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It has been another busy year on and off the field for the Abbey Insurance Ulster Rugby Academy, and it has been a largely positive one, as Kieran Campbell, Academy Manager reflects:

“It’s been another successful season, particularly in terms of the number of Academy players who have transitioned into the senior team,” said Campbell.

“They’ve done really well in that environment and I think that has been reflected not only in their performances, but in how they’ve contributed to good victories both in the PRO14 and the Champions Cup.

“I think that has to be attributed to improved transition of players led by [Head Coach] Dan McFarland into the senior setup. The guys are learning incredibly quickly in that environment thanks to Dan and the other senior coaches and also making significant improvements to their game.”

The successful transition of players from the Academy squad into the Ulster senior team has certainly been one of the highlights of the season, with Academy players making an outstanding 107 appearances in Guinness PRO14 and Heineken Champions Cup competition. As Campbell explains, this was not by chance.

“We’ve really developed that synergy with the seniors and we’ve put in place a formal system for transitioning Academy players up into the senior squad. All the activity of Academy players is intensely scrutinised now and we’re sharing that information with the senior coaching team, so we can use that information to identify when the player is ready to make that transition.

“Fourteen Academy players trained regularly with the seniors this year and Dan and [Scrum Coach] Aaron Dundon also ran a scrum clinic every week with the Academy and sub-Academy players alongside the senior front row.

“The Academy players also trained with the senior players not involved in match-day squads each Friday, so that has really helped accelerate their development and given the senior coaches and staff the opportunity to get to know them better. In addition to that, we’ve developed what we’ve called ‘the critical drop groups’ so the senior coaches now know exactly what the Academy players need to work on at every session to ensure they are constantly developing and this is done after sessions three times a week.”

The Ulster A team, sponsored by CD Group, once again proved to be a useful outlet for the young Academy players to test themselves at a more challenging level.

“We made a strategic decision between the Academy and senior staff that it would be a young Ulster A team this year and we’ve built our depth again through that. On average we had 16 Academy or sub-Academy players per Ulster A squad and have had reasonable success, winning five of the seven Celtic Cup games.

“Going across to the Cara Cup in America was a fantastic experience for a lot of those players to travel as a group and have a really intense week with two tough fixtures, so that was another great learning opportunity for those guys.”

Further down the player pathway, Ulster have enjoyed significant growth at national age-grade level in recent years, and have been well represented again this year.

“At age-grade level we’ve had good success in terms of players coming through at national level. We’re expecting to have around 24/25 national jerseys again this year across Ireland U18, U19 and U20 level, which is a good number and shows there’s a high quality players coming through our pathway.

“We’ve also had players involved in the Irish U20s Six Nations Grand Slam success and five going to the U20 World Championships so I think in general it’s been another move in the right direction this year and it’s something positive that we can build on going forward.”

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Off the field, a significant review of the Academy also took place this year, with the view of creating a sustainable, high-performing environment that will be a key asset to Ulster and Irish rugby, as Campbell explains:

“Obviously we’ve got a lot of key stakeholders – the Academy is very much a shared development space because not only do you have the Academy and senior players, but you’ve also got clubs and schools involved in the progress of each player.

“Therefore, it was important for the review that we involved Simon Best from a club perspective, Stephen Black from the schools and we also brought in two external people in Hugh McCaughey and Jo Hopkins, who is a consultant with the British Olympic programme, because we wanted to get an external high performance view on how we were developing, in terms of our processes within the Academy.

“We also spent some time visiting other high performances models to compare with our own and see if there was anything that we could improve in. We took those key people with us and we visited Exeter Chiefs, Saracens and Arsenal, and, with Jo there, we did a comparison with the British Olympic model as well.

“What did we learn from it? We learned that our own processes are actually pretty good but we also came back with some key areas for development and some of that has been in the transition processes that we’ve looked at between ourselves and the seniors.

“There’s also things that we’ve looked to improve in terms of how we shared information with our key stakeholders. We implemented a new communication platform to ensure there’s good liaison with our key stakeholders on the development of players but also to get their feedback on NTS (National Training Squad) and Academy players.

“We also looked at developing our coaching network and our Talent Coach programme, and that is something that we have put a real emphasis on this year – to develop a succession plan of quality coaches. We’re realistic in acknowledging that the power of what we deliver on the playing field can only be increased in line with the quality of coaches that we have working with the players at all the key levels.

“In terms of culture and environment, we’ve adopted the ‘fight for every inch’ and ‘squeeze every drop’ ethos from Dan [McFarland] – it was something we noticed particularly at Exeter and Saracens where they have such a strong, consistent culture throughout their teams so it is something that we will be pushing right down into our age grade squads from the very top. I think that is bearing fruit as well because it is creating an environment where guys are really striving to enhance their performance and that is obviously reflected in the number of national age grade jerseys and Ulster senior caps we’re getting and also results like the U19s beating the Australia national side.”

Despite another successful season in the books, Campbell is optimistic that there is still room for improvement next year.

“I think we have progressed well but there is still an opportunity to grow again next year. We had 10 Academy players capped for the seniors this year with more than 100 caps, which is great, and is more than any other PRO14 team. Of that, five of those guys have been regularly featuring in the senior team every week, so that’s been great progress but we’ve got a long way to go.

“I know Dan [McFarland] will be wanting to aim higher than just PRO14 semi-finals. We’ll want to be delivering more national jerseys than we are and being successful with the Ulster A team, and in terms of our actual pathway, we need to keep building on our culture, which is really developing well.

“We want to develop a mentoring programme with our senior players and our Academy players to keep developing players to be leaders in the future. We’ve got to keep building on the relationships we have with the senior coaches and the relationships they have with our players to accelerate their development.

“I think with all that work we’re growing the quality mass of players who can support the 1st XV. We’re very neat in our succession planning and we’re very clear in the areas that we need to create players for the senior team to help make them successful. Those are all very important areas of development and we will hopefully see a greater growth in how our programme delivers over the next few years.”

The post Abbey Insurance Ulster Rugby Academy Season Review appeared first on Ulster Rugby.

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BBC Sport NI to live-stream Ulster Rugby’s pre-season game with Saracens

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Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Ulster Rugby’s pre-season friendly match against Gallagher Premiership side Saracens on Friday 3 September (KO 7pm) will be streamed live on BBC iPlayer and the BBC Sport NI website.

The game kicks off at 7pm with Jim Neilly on commentary alongside former Ulster Rugby, Leicester Tigers and London Irish out-half, Ian Humphreys.

The news of the streamed match follows the announcement that BBC Sport NI will broadcast six of Ulster Rugby’s nine home matches in this season’s inaugural United Rugby Championship live on television.

Up to 10,000 supporters will be allowed into the Kingspan Stadium for the Saracens game making it the first major crowd at the venue since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

Saracens are coached by former Ulster player and Head Coach, Mark McCall, who, along with David Humphreys lifted the European Cup in Dublin in 1999.

Ulster will play Saracens twice in the coming weeks with a return game in Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) in London pencilled in for Thursday 9 September.

Source – Ulster Rugby

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Wallabies make changes for Bledisloe II

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Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has named Lachlan Swinton and Marika Koroibete in the starting side for the second Bledisloe Cup Test in Auckland on Saturday night.  

They are two of the four changes to the XV, with the experienced Matt To’omua elevated to inside centre for the must win match at Eden Park while Matt Philip starts in the second row.

The front row remains the same for the third consecutive week, James Slipper the starting loosehead prop alongside hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa with the reliable Allan Alaalatoa at tighthead prop.

Philip will partner Darcy Swain in their first Test start together in the second row, while Swinton’s inclusion has forced a reshuffle of the loose forwards that sees Rob Valetini move to no. 8. Michael Hooper will skipper the side for the 57th time at openside flanker.

The young halves pairing of Tate McDermott and Noah Lolesio get another chance to build on their combination, with Hunter Paisami moving to outside centre to partner To’omua in the midfield.

After an impressive Bledisloe Cup debut, Rebels flyer Andrew Kellaway earns his second start in Wallaby gold alongside Koroibete and fullback Tom Banks in the back three.

67-Test capped prop Scott Sio has been named in his first Wallabies side of 2021 as the finishing loosehead. Jordan Uelese is the replacement hooker with Taniela Tupou set to share the minutes with Alaalatoa at tighthead prop. 

Reds duo Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Harry Wilson will cover the second and backrow.

Brumbies number nine Nic White is also set for his first appearance for the Wallabies in 2021 after recovering from a knee injury.  He’s joined on the pine by club teammate Len Ikitau and the versatile Reece Hodge who rounds out the matchday 23.

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie said: “Eden Park is a place that most teams fear but we’re excited to get another crack after last weekend’s disappointment.”

“To beat New Zealand, you have to win the collisions and be clinical for 80 minutes and we didn’t do that.

“We’ve got a lot more in us and we’ll show that on Saturday night.”

Stan Sport will showcase Saturday night’s Bledisloe Cup Test ad-free, live and on demand while it will also be simulcast on 9Gem.

Very limited tickets will be available for the Bledisloe Cup Test at Optus Stadium in Perth on Saturday 28 August and available via Ticketmaster.

Wallabies team to play New Zealand at Eden Park, Auckland on Saturday 14 August, 7:05pm NZST
1. James Slipper (104 Tests)
2. Brandon Paenga-Amosa (13 Tests)
3. Allan Alaalatoa (47 Tests)
4. Darcy Swain (4 Tests)
5. Matt Philip (13 Tests)
6. Lachlan Swinton (2 Tests)
7. Michael Hooper (c) (109 Tests)
8. Rob Valetini (8 Tests)
9. Tate McDermott (6 Tests)
10. Noah Lolesio (6 Tests)
11. Marika Koroibete (37 Tests)
12. Matt To’omua (58 Tests)
13. Hunter Paisami (10 Tests)
14. Andrew Kellaway (3 Tests)
15. Tom Banks (15 Tests)
Replacements
16. Jordan Uelese (14 Tests)
17. Scott Sio (68 Tests)
18. Taniela Tupou (29 Tests)
19. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto (29 Tests)
20. Harry Wilson (9 Tests)
21. Nic White (37 Tests)
22. Len Ikitau (3 Tests)
23. Reece Hodge (47 Tests)

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Lions Make Changes For Series Decider

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Photo By Ian Rutherford/Sportsfile Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images

British & Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland has made six changes to the starting XV which lost to the Springboks last Saturday in Cape Town.

The defeat sees the Castle Lager Lions Series level at 1-1 going into this weekend’s final Test match.

The Tour’s leading try-scorer, Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby, Wales), makes his Lions Test debut on the right wing joining Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland) who keeps his place on the left. Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales) is added at full back to complete the back three.

Bundee Aki (Connacht Rugby, Ireland) is included at inside centre to win his first Test cap, joining Robbie Henshaw (Leinster Rugby, Ireland) who switches to 13.

Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales) is retained at fly-half with Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland) starting at scrum half having been named as a replacement last weekend.

In the pack, there are two changes to the front-row with injury-free Wyn Jones (Scarlets, Wales) taking his place on the loosehead to make his Lions Test debut alongside Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales), who is promoted from the bench to start his first Test of the Tour at hooker. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland) continues on the tighthead to win his sixth-successive Test cap.

Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales) is named as captain to win his 12th consecutive cap moving him alongside Graham Price (1977 – 1983) and Mike Gibson (1966 – 1974) in the list of most Lions Test appearances. The iconic Welshman is again partnered in the second row by Maro Itoje (Saracens, England).

The back row remains the same with Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England) at blind side flanker, Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England) on the open side and Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland) at No. 8.

On the bench, Adam Beard (Ospreys, Wales), Finn Russell (Racing 92, Scotland), and Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England) feature for the first time in the Test Series and will all win their first Lions cap should they take the field. Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears, England) is included subject to the outcome of a disciplinary hearing.

“The matchday 23 have an incredibly special opportunity in front of them – to seal a Lions Series victory in South Africa,” said Gatland.

“It doesn’t get much bigger than this and we’re excited by the challenge that faces us on Saturday.

“We’ve no excuses from last week, the Springboks put us under pressure in the second half and deserved the win. We have to be much better than that second half performance, and I believe we will be.”

Saturday’s clash against the reigning World Champions is the final Test match in the 2021 Castle Lager Lions Series and will be shown live and exclusively on Sky Sports.

SOUTH AFRICA v THE BRITISH & IRISH LIONS

15. Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales) #833

14. Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby, Wales) #836

13. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster Rugby, Ireland) #824

12. Bundee Aki (Connacht Rugby, Ireland) #837

11. Duhan van der Merwe (Worcester Warriors, Scotland) #841

10. Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints, Wales) #821

9. Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland) #843

1. Wyn Jones (Scarlets, Wales) #842

2. Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales) #829

3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster Rugby, Ireland) #818

4. Maro Itoje (Saracens, England) #825

5. Alun Wyn Jones – captain (Ospreys, Wales) #761

6. Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, England) #826

7. Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, England) #853

8. Jack Conan (Leinster Rugby, Ireland) #839

Replacements:

16. Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, England) #851

17. Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England) #787

18. *Kyle Sinckler (Bristol Bears, England) #814 – subject to outcome of disciplinary hearing.

19. Adam Beard (Ospreys, Wales) #852

20. Sam Simmonds (Exeter Chiefs, England) #849

21. Conor Murray (Munster Rugby, Ireland) #790

22. Finn Russell (Racing 92, Scotland) #835

23. Elliot Daly (Saracens, England) #822

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