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…Embed from Getty Images
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…Embed from Getty Images
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…Embed from Getty Images
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.Embed from Getty Images
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…Embed from Getty Images
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…
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…Embed from Getty Images
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…Embed from Getty Images
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
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.
Ulster make changes for Toulouse
The Ulster match-day squad has been named for the Second Leg of the Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 versus Toulouse at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday evening.
Nick Timoney will make his 100th appearance for the Ulster men, as he is named to start at openside – with Marcus Rea at blindside and Duane Vermeulen at Number Eight. Andrew Warwick comes in to start at loosehead, and will pack down with Rob Herring at hooker and Marty Moore at tighthead. Captain Iain Henderson will partner with Alan O’Connor in the engine room.
Mike Lowry and Rob Baloucoune, who signed new 3-year contract extensions this week, are named at full-back and on the right wing respectively. Ethan McIlroy returns to take the left-wing starting berth. Stuart McCloskey and James Hume will form the midfield partnership, and John Cooney and Billy Burns are retained at scrum-half and out-half.
Brad Roberts, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell and Jordi Murphy will provide forward reinforcements, while Nathan Doak, Luke Marshall and Rob Lyttle will offer back line cover.
Ulster team to play Toulouse, Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 Second Leg, Saturday 16 April at Kingspan Stadium, 8pm kick-off, live on BT Sport, beIN Sports, and Sky Italia:
(15-9) Mike Lowry, Rob Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy, Billy Burns, John Cooney;
(1-8) Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (Capt.), Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: Brad Roberts, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell, Jordi Murphy, Nathan Doak, Luke Marshall, Rob Lyttle.
Graham Rowntree Confirmed As Next Munster Head Coach
Munster Rugby and the IRFU are pleased to confirm that Graham Rowntree will be promoted from Forwards Coach to the role of Head Coach from July 1, 2022.
Rowntree will commence the role of Head Coach at the start of the 2022/23 season after signing a two-year deal.
The former England prop made the move to Limerick in October 2019 on completion of his Rugby World Cup coaching duties with Georgia Rugby.
In his third season as Forwards Coach Graham and family have settled well into Limerick life, noting earlier this year, “I have made my thoughts about this club widely known throughout my time so far, and for me and my family it really has been an easy decision, a non-decision if truth be told.
“We’ve put down roots here and have no desire to move anywhere else.”
With an impressive coaching CV and vast experience, Rowntree previously held coaching roles with the British and Irish Lions, England Rugby, Harlequins and Leicester Tigers.
Working closely with the IRFU, the province will advance with next steps in securing the backroom team that will work with Graham from next season as Head Coach Johann van Graan, Senior Coach Stephen Larkham, and Defence Coach JP Ferreira depart the province at the end of June.
IRFU Performance Director, David Nucifora, commented, “I would like to thank the Munster Professional Game Committee for their work and diligence during this process.
“It is important that Munster have someone who understands the unique history and culture of the club and has the experience to maximise the talent in the squad.
“Graham was very impressive throughout this process and demonstrated he has the capabilities to spearhead the next chapter of Munster Rugby.”
On confirmation of the promotion, Graham Rowntree added, “I am hugely honoured to be taking over the role of Head Coach for a club of this calibre, one that means so much to me and my family.
“We have thoroughly enjoyed every moment here and I fortunately get to work with an incredible group of staff and players who share a common goal each day in striving for success for this club.
“I’ve talked about our fantastic supporters before and again at the weekend we stepped off the bus to a huge red welcome in Exeter. Who doesn’t want to be part of that, that’s special!
“I believe we have the established structures in place with the resources and facilities to match and that it will be a smooth transition for the coaching ticket we assemble in ensuring continued development and success for this club.
“Before then I have a role to complete this season and working closely with Johann, Steve, and JP is the immediate focus and priority for now.”
Commenting on the appointment, Munster Rugby CEO Ian Flanagan said, “Graham’s extensive coaching experience and knowledge for the game makes him the perfect candidate to lead this squad forward.
“With Graham stepping up at the start of the new season it will be a seamless and natural progression from the work that has been carried out to-date.
“For now, we will continue our focus on the remainder of this season with Graham supporting Johann and the coaching staff in achieving our goals.”
Munster Rugby Home Fixtures
Saturday, April 16
Champions Cup Round of 16: Munster v Exeter Chiefs, Thomond Park, 3pm; Buy tickets here
Friday, April 29
URC: Munster v Cardiff Rugby, Musgrave Park, 7.35pm; Buy tickets here
Images & Content from Munster Rugby
Ulster name team for Toulouse
The Ulster match-day squad has been selected for the first leg of the Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 versus Toulouse at Le Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Ben Moxham will make his first European start for Ulster as he is named on the left wing alongside Mike Lowry at full-back and Robert Baloucoune on the right wing. Stuart McCloskey comes in to start and will partner with James Hume in the centre. Billy Burns and John Cooney return to form the half-back pairing.
The front row sees Eric O’Sullivan and Rob Herring named at loosehead and hooker, with Marty Moore retaining his place at tighthead prop. Alan O’Connor returns to pair up with captain Iain Henderson in the second row. Marcus Rea comes in at blindside flanker, with Nick Timoney and Duane Vermeulen retained at openside and Number Eight respectively.
Brad Roberts, Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell and Jordi Murphy provide the forward reinforcements on the bench. Nathan Doak, Luke Marshall and Rob Lyttle will offer the back line options.
Ulster team to play Toulouse, Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 First Leg, Saturday 9 April at Le Stadium, 3.15pm kick-off (UK / IRE time), live on BT Sport, beIN Sports, FR2:
(15-9) Mike Lowry, Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ben Moxham, Billy Burns, John Cooney;
(1-8) Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (Capt.), Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: Brad Roberts, Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell, Jordi Murphy, Nathan Doak, Luke Marshall, Rob Lyttle.