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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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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 Squad Update

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(Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The Munster Rugby touring party returned to their hotel base in Cape Town last night to isolate following confirmation that one positive result was returned from Saturday’s PCR testing programme.

The players and staff will undergo another round of PCR testing today with the results from same expected tomorrow.

The province continues to work with the health authorities, the South African Rugby Union, URC and the IRFU in deciding the next course of action.

Head Coach Johann van Graan said, “This has been a whirlwind of a time and we are very grateful to the people in the background who are helping us during this challenging period, and for all the best wishes we are receiving.

“We have one player in a different hotel who is doing as well as possible after receiving a positive PCR result, while the remainder of the group are isolating individually at the team hotel.

“Work is ongoing with all relevant authorities in securing our return to Ireland at a time when safe and appropriate but for now our priority is to look after our players and staff.

“While this is a time of uncertainty for all involved, we are doing everything possible to support our people.”

Meanwhile at the HPC in UL, Greencore Academy Manager Ian Costello and staff are overseeing the training schedule for the Academy group and returning internationals as preparations continue for Munster’s opening Champions Cup game against Wasps on Sunday, December 12.

Images & Content from Munster Rugby

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Champions Cup

Stephen Larkham Set For Return Home To Australia

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Stephen Larkham will depart Munster Rugby at the end of the 2021/22 season.

Larkham, who joined Munster as senior coach two years ago, is contracted to the province until the end of the season and was offered the opportunity to extend his time in Limerick.

After careful consideration Larkham eventually declined the extended contract offer citing personal reasons in seeking a return to Australia with his family and the additional incentive of a coaching opportunity closer to home.

Stephen Larkham said, “I only recently spoke about my desire to remain with Munster and continue working with my fellow coaches and playing group.

“That hopefully gives some indication as to how difficult a decision this has been for me. The staff, players, fans, and facilities are world class here and I am grateful to have had this opportunity.

“My family made a number of sacrifices in joining me on this move to Ireland and my girls’ adjustment over here, particularly with covid, has been difficult. I have to put them first now, and with a coaching opportunity closer to home this is the right thing for my family at this time.

“For now, my focus is very much with Munster Rugby and with a long season ahead I will savour every moment of working within this great environment as we continue to build in the right direction.”

Images & Content from Munster Rugby

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6 Nations

World Rugby to introduce contact training restrictions

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World Rugby

World Rugby and International Rugby Players (IRP) have published new contact training load guidance aimed at reducing injury risk and supporting short and long-term player welfare. The guidance is being supported by national players’ associations, national unions, international and domestic competitions, top coaches and clubs.

Earlier this year, World Rugby unveiled a transformational six-point plan aiming to cement rugby as the most progressive sport on player welfare. These new best-practice guidelines focus on the intensity and frequency of contact training to which professional rugby players should be exposed and have been shaped by consultation with players and coaches as well as leading medical, conditioning and scientific experts.

While the incidence of training injuries is low relative to that of matches, the volume of training performed means that a relatively high proportion (35-40 per cent) of all injuries during a season occur during training, with the majority of these being soft tissue injuries. Since the training environment is highly controllable, the guidelines have been developed to reduce injury risk and cumulative contact load to the lowest possible levels that still allow for adequate player conditioning and technical preparation.

Global study

The guidelines are based on a global study undertaken by IRP of almost 600 players participating across 18 elite men’s and women’s competitions, and a comprehensive review of the latest injury data. This reveals that training patterns vary across competitions, with an average of 21 minutes per week of full contact training and an average total contact load of 118 minutes per week. A more measured and consistent approach to training will help manage the contact load for players, especially those moving between club and national training environments. The research supports minimising contact load in training, in order that players can be prepared to perform but avoid an elevated injury risk at the same time. The guidelines aim to help strike that balance.

New ‘best practice’ training contact guidelines

World Rugby and International Rugby Players’ new framework [https://www.world.rugby/the-game/player-welfare/medical/contact-load] sets out clear and acceptable contact guidelines for training sessions, aiming to further inform coaches – and players – of best practice for reducing injury risk and optimising match preparation in season. The guidance covers the whole spectrum of contact training types, considering volume, intensity, frequency and predictability of contact, as well as the optimal structure of sessions across the typical training week, including crucial recovery and rest periods.

Recommended contact training limits for the professional game are:

  1. Full contact training: maximum of 15 minutes per week across a maximum of two days per week with Mondays and Fridays comprising zero full contact training to allow for recovery and preparation
  2. Controlled contact training: maximum of 40 minutes per week 
  3. Live set piece training: maximum of 30 minutes set piece training per week is advised

The guidelines, which also consider reducing the overall load for players of particular age, maturity and injury profile (in line with the risk factors and load guidance published in 2019), will feature in the men’s and women’s Rugby World Cup player welfare standards.

Instrumented mouthguard research programme to inform effectiveness

World Rugby is partnering with elite teams to measure the ‘real life’ effect of these guidelines (in training and matches) and assess the mechanism, incidence and intensity of head impact events using the Prevent Biometics market-leading instrumented mouthguard technology and video analysis to monitor implementation and measure outcomes.

The technology, the same employed in the ground-breaking Otago Rugby Head Impact Detection Study, will deliver the biggest ever comparable bank of head impact data in the sport with more than 1,000 participants across the men’s and women’s elite, community and age-grade levels. The teams that have signed up so far are multiple Champions Cup winners Leinster, French powerhouse Clermont Auvergne and Benetton Treviso while discussions are ongoing with several other men’s and women’s teams across a range of competitions.

World Rugby Chief Executive Alan Gilpin said: “This important body of work reflects our ambition to advance welfare for players at all levels of the game. Designed by experts, these guidelines are based on the largest study of contact training in the sport, developed by some of the best rugby, performance and medical minds in the game. We believe that by moderating overall training load on an individualised basis, including contact in season, it is possible to enhance both injury-prevention and performance outcomes, which is good for players, coaches and fans.”

World Rugby Director of Rugby and High Performance and former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt added: “Training has increasingly played an important role in injury-prevention as well as performance. While there is a lot less full contact training than many people might imagine, it is our hope that having a central set of guidelines will further inform players and coaches of key considerations for any contact that is done during training.

“These new guidelines, developed by leading experts and supported by the game, are by necessity a work in progress and will be monitored and further researched to understand the positive impact on player welfare. We are encouraged by the response that we have received so far.

“We recognise that community level rugby can be an almost entirely different sport in terms of fitness levels, resources and how players can be expected to train, but the guidelines can be applied at many levels, especially the planning, purpose and monitoring of any contact in training.”

International Rugby Players Chief Executive Omar Hassanein said the guidelines are being welcomed by players: “From an International Rugby Players’ perspective, this project represents a significant and very relevant piece of work relating to contact load. We’ve worked closely with our member bodies in gathering approximately 600 responses from across the globe, allowing us to have sufficient data to then be assessed by industry experts. The processing of this data has led to some quite specific recommendations which are designed to protect our players from injuries relating to excessive contact load. We will continue to work with World Rugby as we monitor the progress of these recommendations and undertake further research in this area.”

Leinster coach Stuart Lancaster, who was involved in reviewing the study and advising the development of the guidelines, said: “We have a responsibility to make the game as safe as possible for all our players. For coaches, optimising training plays a significant role in achieving that objective. It is important that we do not overdo contact load across the week in order that players are fresh, injury-free and ready for match days. These guidelines provide a practical and impactful approach to this central area of player preparation and management.”

Ireland international and IRP Head of Strategic Projects and Research Sene Naoupu said: “While this is the first step of the implementation and monitoring process, it is an incredible outcome that shows just how much players care about this area. It also provides a foundation to review and determine future direction of implementation across the game, within an evidence-based injury-prevention programme for performance and welfare.” 

World Rugby is also progressing a wide-ranging study of the impact of replacements on injury risk in the sport with the University of Bath in England, a ground-breaking study into the frequency and nature of head impacts in community rugby in partnership with the Otago Rugby Union, University of Otago and New Zealand Rugby, and further research specific to the professional women’s game. All of these priority activities will inform the decisions the sport makes to advance welfare for players at all levels and stages.

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