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Nurturing the Future of Ulster Rugby with James Topping

A really interesting insight on his move from amateur to professional and his role within Ulster Rugby.

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Photo by Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images

Peter Lockhart from UlsterRugbyLad recently caught up with former Ireland, Ulster and Ballymena winger, James Topping. As the Elite Player Development Officer with Ulster Rugby, he is responsible for finding and nurturing talent in the province.

We discuss how he developed his passion for rugby, the difficulties involved in finding and retaining home grown talent and the current state of Ulster Rugby.

On getting into Rugby…

Like most guys it was my friends who got me into rugby. I played rugby for the first time at Ballymena Rugby Club whenever I was in P7. All my mates had decided to go so I thought I would go along as well. I went to Ballymena Academy (nearly 30 years ago!) and the two options were rugby and cross country so I was always going to choose rugby!

I still played football on Saturdays but then I was selected for the 1st XV when I was in 5th year at school and that’s when I told myself ‘I better start to take this seriously!’.

We had a really good team. When I was in 5th year we got beaten in the final by Inst 10-9 – one of the few games we lost all year but that’s the way it goes!

In lower and upper sixth I was selected for Ulster and Irish Schools. That gave me a real impetus to push on and see how far I could get in rugby.

On joining Ulster…

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I left school in 1993 and I was going to be a civil engineer. It’s not like there was a choice as there was no professional rugby at that stage so I thought I better continue on with education.

It was in my 2nd year at Uni that changed. I had played for Ulster in my first year out at uni. I then went professional, getting to play for Ireland and got my pro contract when I was still at university. It made it easier for me – it hadn’t been my focus as school to make it as a professional rugby player as that option hadn’t really been available.

On the differences before rugby turned professional…

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When I started playing we just trained at rugby. There wasn’t much outside of that. Strength and conditioning hadn’t really started. You were just left to do whatever you wanted to get ready for playing.

When you got injured you were just told to rest – there was no big push or loads of physio treatment to get you back in and playing again.

We trained on a Tuesday and Thursday and then just played rugby on the weekend. That was the focus for us – the game at the weekend. There was very little squad rotation – the best team was just put out every week. There was no careful scheduling or management of players. If you were fit and the best in your position you were going to get playing.

It meant we were all on a level playing field – the other provinces were doing pretty much the same as we were doing. It was only when you played a French or English team in Europe you noticed there was a big difference – how much bigger, more physical and better prepared they were.

Now, you look at the daily and weekly diaries of the guys and there is so much they are doing to try and improve themselves and keep ahead of the game. It’s completely different.

On his current role…

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I went back to work as a civil engineer for 6 or 7 years. Then, when circumstances changed, I approached Ulster and applied for the role of Elite Player Development Officer and, thankfully, I got it.

One of the biggest parts of the role is identification of talent which starts around the age of 14 or 15. A huge part of that is speaking to players and coaches in schools because it can be very hard to cover every game in the entire province.

I often speak to the head of rugby at different schools and they will usually be pretty on the ball with who they think is a talented player and whether they think someone can go the whole way. It’s also really important to ask players who they rate in their team – that gives a really good indication as well.

Once they’re in the set-up there are a lot of different facets to look at. It’s not just the talent to play rugby – it’s the ability to play your role as part of a team and prepare yourself away from the pitch. Also, how young players spend their down time and how they look after themselves when they’re injured are also important factors.

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I see talented guys coming through and they don’t make it for a variety of reasons. Certainly, there were guys more talented than me who I played with at school who didn’t come through because they weren’t prepared to put in the work.

We place a huge emphasis on the guys whenever they are coming through that they have to put in the work to get selected. We give them everything they need in terms of the environment to succeed. It’s our job to get guys to the point where they are training with the senior squad.

For guys like Jacob (Stockdale), for example, by working hard he gets himself to the position where he is training with the seniors. He then starts training with the likes of Charles Piatau and Jared Payne. We get them to the level so they are ready to train with the seniors and then they learn so much from working with these guys – that’s when I start to see them really flourish.

On key qualities of emerging players…

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You have to be able to take criticism well and learn. You should be seeking out criticism. If you shy away from that or ignore your faults and weaknesses then you may survive for a bit but eventually you will get found out.

This ability is hugely important in earning respect of senior players and being accepted by them. That’s the most frustrating thing when some people are really talented but don’t know how to handle the pressure. The pressure will come upon you.

Some people can get away with trying things because their resilience – their strength of character – is good enough. Once they become part of the team and know what their roles are, they need the resilience and confidence in their own ability to stay there.

Jacob (Stockdale) and Keith Earls, for example, are players who play in the back three. Even players at their level have flaws – as all rugby players do – but their attitudes are great. You can see they’re giving 100% every time they play. They make their own luck by finding themselves in the right positions and working hard when they don’t have the ball.

On home-grown talent…

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It seems like in 1998/1999 something happened – a lot of talent has come through for players born in those years. Not sure what is was – maybe something they say on TV that inspired them!

Michael Lowry and James Hume are the obvious examples – they won the Schools Cup and played with each other right through school. They are actually the exceptions though, in terms of guys who won the Schools Cup.

The likes of Robert Baloucoune is from Pretora (now Enniskillen Grammar), Jacob was at Wallace. There’s a number of others from schools where School’s Cup success is not the be all and end all – it keeps the drive in them. They want to keep going as they don’t feel they have reached their rugby peak. There’s a good crop coming through – I don’t want to name names and add pressure but there are some back three guys I have worked with who will hopefully go on and do well.

It’s good to see forwards like Adam McBurney (who came through the club system), Eric O’Sullivan and Tom O’Toole coming into the team. Of course, there will be other guys who take slightly longer to develop and then come into the team and do really well. Matty Rea has come in at the age of 23-24 and done well.

On retaining players and widening the net…

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In Ulster, the university brain drain is massive. A lot of guys who play rugby go to mainland UK for uni. People go on to study, get jobs and stop playing rugby.

In Dublin most guys stay and go to Dublin unis and they also benefit from guys coming to Dublin from Limerick and other places as well.

Clubs are a massive thing for us. Mini rugby is really strong – it’s after P7 a lot of guys drift away from rugby.

It all comes back to grass-roots and retaining the good mini rugby players. We all know there’s the group of guys who came through Methody having played mini rugby, played at school and then 8 or 9 of them went on to become professional rugby players.

Keeping players at clubs is important – a well organised under 20s league would be good, not just one-off tournaments. Guys want to play with and against their friends which can be difficult when making the transition to senior club rugby – a limited number will play for the firsts and the retention rate isn’t as good for guys playing down the levels.

It’s about trying to keep the enjoyment factor alive. It may not be until 23 or 24 that people start to play their best rugby. An under 20s league would also be good for those who did not go through the traditional grammar schools route and didn’t have the same platform or coaching environment – it would help keep them in the game.

On Ulster’s Future…

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Ulster will continue to push young players into the team. It is really noticeable, this year in particular, because of a number of retirements. The guys who have come in have played really well and have applied pressure on the older professionals.

This is what we need and it benefits everyone – Rory Best would love seeing a few guys below him pushing for a place. Ideally the guys who are 24 or 25 should be getting put under pressure from guys who are 19-20.

Ulster is a club that wants to play in the top competitions all of the time. It makes a huge difference to supporters. We have high aspirations.

Dan, Dwayne, Jared and all the other coaching staff have changed the outlook. The young players coming through don’t look intimidated and the older guys are really welcoming to this younger batch coming through.

I think Ulster will be stronger and stronger in the next few seasons. There are a good number of guys pushing their way through from the academy and this will be really important in giving us a strong squad to pick from – that’s what’s needed to compete at the very top level again.


Champions Cup

Munster Rugby New Coaches Intro | 2022/23

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A new-look coaching team will lead Munster Rugby this season with Head Coach Graham Rowntree joined by Mike Prendergast, Andi Kyriacou and Denis Leamy.

New Attack Coach Prendergast joined from Racing 92, Forwards Coach Kyriacou was promoted from his role as Elite Player Development Officer and Defence Coach Leamy has returned from Leinster.

See profiles for the three new members of the coaching team below. Scroll down to watch Graham Rowntree’s first interview as Munster Head Coach.

Mike Prendergast – Attack Coach

Mike Prendergast has joined Munster from Top 14 side Racing 92, where he held the role of  Attack and Backs Coach since 2019.

Prendergast has a wealth of experience of coaching at the top level and in addition to Racing 92 he has held assistant coaching roles with Stade Francais, Oyannax Rugby and Grenoble FCG since making the move to France in 2013.

On completing his professional playing career in 2009 the scrum-half continued playing with his club Young Munster RFC while also progressing on the coaching front as he held Head Coach and Director of Rugby roles with the Limerick side.

On the provincial coaching front, he previously worked closely with Academy Manager Ian Costello and Team Manager Niall O’Donovan when overseeing the backline for the Munster A’s that enjoyed British and Irish Cup success in 2012.

Andi Kyriacou – Forwards Coach

Andi Kyriacou has been promoted from his role as an Elite Player Development Officer with the Greencore Munster Rugby Academy, a position he held since April 2021.

From England, the former hooker lined out for the province during the 2006/07 season when on loan from Saracens and went on to represent Ulster and Cardiff Rugby before retiring from the professional game in 2013.

Over the last decade he has held numerous coaching roles in the areas of the scrum, defence, skills, and forwards working with Cardiff Rugby, Sale Sharks, Russia Rugby and Nottingham.

Andi Kyriacou prior to Munster's Champions Cup clash against Wasps in Coventry earlier this season.

Andi Kyriacou prior to Munster’s Champions Cup clash against Wasps in Coventry.

Denis Leamy – Defence Coach

Denis Leamy returned to Munster after a three-year spell at Leinster, where he first held a role as an Elite Player Development Officer before moving up to the role of Contact Skills Coach in October 2021.

Following a hugely successful playing career with Munster and Ireland Leamy’s coaching career saw him work with several sides across the province over seven years including Young Munster RFC, Rockwell College, Clonmel RFC, Cashel RFC and Garryowen FC.

On the provincial front the Tipperary native also worked at various stages with Munster’s age-grade players and the ‘A’ team before making the move to Leinster.

He joined the Ireland U20s team as Assistant Coach for the 2021 Six Nations campaign.

New Defence Coach Denis Leamy.

New Defence Coach Denis Leamy.

Video | Graham Rowntree Interview

Images & Content from Munster Rugby


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Champions Cup

Video | Graham Rowntree’s 1st Interview As Head Coach

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We spoke to Graham Rowntree about his new role as Munster Head Coach ahead of the pre-season training programme.

Graham spent three years as Munster Forwards Coach before stepping up to become Head Coach.

He leads a new-look coaching team including Attack Coach Mike Prendergast, Defence Coach Denis Leamy and Forwards Coach Andi Kyriacou.

The new campaign kicks off in one month with Munster taking on Gloucester and London Irish in two pre-season games at Musgrave Park. Click here for fixture details and ticket news.

Watch Graham Rowntree’s first interview as Munster Head Coach below.

Pre-Season Fixtures

Buy a discount two-match pack here.

Friday, August 26

Munster Rugby v Gloucester, Musgrave Park, 7.30pm; Buy tickets here

Friday, September 2

Munster Rugby v London Irish, Musgrave Park, 7.30pm; Buy tickets here

Images & Content from Munster Rugby


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Champions Cup

2022/23 Heineken Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup pool stage fixture schedules announced

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Stade Rochelais, who won a first Heineken Champions Cup in such dramatic fashion in May, will launch the defence of their title at Stade Marcel Deflandre against another former tournament winner, Northampton Saints, when the 2022/23 EPCR season kicks off on the weekend of 9/10/11 December.

The Anglo-French clash in Pool B will be one of a host of mouthwatering match-ups, which include the landmark participation of South African clubs, following today’s (Thursday, 21 July) announcement of the Heineken Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup fixture schedules.

URC winners, the Stormers, will have a first competitive outing on French soil when they take on ASM Clermont Auvergne in the Stade Marcel-Michelin cauldron, while the Pretoria-based Bulls and the Sharks from Durban will be at home against Lyon and Harlequins respectively in Round 1 on the weekend of 9/10/11 December.

Click HERE for the 2022/23 Heineken Champions Cup pool stage fixtures

Reigning Gallagher Premiership champions, Leicester Tigers, will open their campaign against the Ospreys at the Swansea.com Stadium, and last season’s TOP 14 winners, Montpellier Hérault Rugby, will also be on the road when they face London Irish, who are making a return to the top flight for the first time since 2012, at Brentford Community Stadium.

Two of the tournament’s heavyweights, Munster Rugby and Stade Toulousain, who met in a memorable quarter-final last season, will renew rivalries in Round 1 in early December at what is certain to be a packed-out Thomond Park.

At this stage, EPCR are only announcing the fixtures by round for the pool stages, with exact dates, kick-off times and TV coverage in both the Heineken Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup to be announced as soon as possible following the conclusion of negotiations with broadcasters for the new cycle across each market.

The 2020 winners, Bristol Bears, will be hoping for a repeat performance when they start their EPCR Challenge Cup Pool A campaign against USAP at Stade Aimé Giral on the weekend of 9/10/11 December, while last season’s defeated finalists, RC Toulon, travel to Zebre Parma in Round 1.

Click HERE for the 2022/23 EPCR Challenge Cup pool stage fixtures

The Lions from Johannesburg will make their debut in the tournament against Worcester Warriors at Sixways, while the Cheetahs, who will play their two ‘home’ matches in Pool B at Stadio Lanfranchi in Parma, go head-to-head with Section Paloise at Stade du Hameau in the south-west of France in Round 1.

HEINEKEN CHAMPIONS CUP

24 elite clubs (nine tournament winners with 36 EPCR titles between them)
Two pools of 12
Four pool stage rounds
Eight highest-ranked clubs from each pool qualify for the knockout stage
Knockout stage: Round of 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals and final
Ninth and 10th ranked clubs from each pool qualify for the EPCR Challenge Cup

Click HERE for the Heineken Champions Cup pools

EPCR CHALLENGE CUP

20 clubs (seven tournament winners with 14 EPCR titles between them)
Two pools of 10
Four pool stage rounds
Six highest-ranked clubs from each pool qualify for the knockout stage
Knockout stage: Round of 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals and final

Click HERE for the EPCR Challenge Cup pools

2022/23 key dates
Round 1 – 9/10/11 December 2022
Round 2 – 16/17/18 December 2022
Round 3 – 13/14/15 January 2023
Round 4 – 20/21/22 January 2023
Round of 16 – 31 March – 1/2 April 2023
Quarter-finals – 7/8/9 April 2023
Semi-finals – 28/29/30 April 2023
EPCR Challenge Cup final – Friday 19 May 2023; Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Heineken Champions Cup final – Saturday 20 May 2023; Aviva Stadium, Dublin

Content & Images from – EPC Rugby


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