Trade was strong last week at the prestigious Goffs Orby sale in Kill. The best buyers in global industry were there, hoping to find the equine equivalent of the next David Clifford, Joe Canning or Johnny Sexton.
Earling sales are generally fascinating because they’re a bit like trying to find a diamond in the rough. The sales catalog included 444 horses with an average price of 109,000 euros and a top lot of 1.5 million euros. One of my best friends, David Cox, was one of the largest consignors there with 40 year olds sold on behalf of breeders. He and his team operate a high-performance environment in which every horse is meticulously prepared to look at its best during the sales week. These horses are unbroken, however, so they are unproven.
The sales catalog is published weeks in advance and buyers study it like a set of notes from a grind school the night before Leaving Cert. Spotters visit and observe the yearlings on their farms throughout the summer. Those that catch the eye are checked again at the time of sale and a second and third opinion is often obtained. Breed, height, temperament, gait, athleticism, and budget are part of the decision-making process. The day you buy is the day you sell and one bad choice could be enough to wipe you out.
It’s a very similar process to talent identification as soccer, basketball, tennis, or rugby. The experts try to identify talent at an early stage and then bring them into a performance environment that is the academy system in rugby.
It should be easier in rugby than with yearlings, as players are exposed by the age of 18 and your scouts should see them play in competitive matches against the best players of their generation. The academy’s trainers, like the horse counselors and trainers, will try to gauge their skills, predict how much they will grow physically, whether they have the temperament to withstand pressure, and whether they are tough enough to avoid injury, etc. .
Every professional team has a depth table for each position. Leinster, for example, can record in depth the strength of Tadgh Furlong in 3rd place all the way to the system’s best 16-year-old tighthead prop. A weakness in the depth table in a particular position can from time to time lead to increased demand for certain profiles, but there are some arguments in favor of bringing in the best talent and then contracting when you see the finished item. I think this is especially important in Ireland, where our player pool is much smaller than in France and England – every potential gem needs to be valued and polished.
When I was training in France and Wales, we signed players aged 17/18 because we were competing with our rivals for the best talent in our field. There was a free market and you had to try to find talent in your field or outside of it.
In recent years, the IRFU, which controls the four academies centrally, seems to have decided to award academy contracts later than in harmony with the rest of the world. I see why it makes financial sense for the federal states and the IRFU, but not ideal for the young men who leave school and move on to the next phase of life, be it in further training or in professional life.
The population dictates that every June, Leinster has the most young players taking their Leaving Cert. Historically, in Ireland the best high school and youth players got 18 academy contracts and the rest went to clubs or university teams, either aiming to get back on as late-breaking developers or playing at the highest possible level outside of professional play.
Now Leinster has what my father at Mart would refer to as the “holding pen” they call the sub-academy, and some players can spend two years in that nursery before the academy staff make a decision about their future. Sub-academy players are not paid but are expected to complete an intensive training program.
About 30 players from the sub-academy train in Donnybrook, while the contract academy players are stationed with the senior players and coaches in UCD’s high-performance facility. Decisions about their future are usually made around the time the Irish Under-20s face off against the Six Nations, so they are effectively ready to compete as 20-year-olds who have been in strength and conditioning programs since they were 15 or 16 years old walk.
Academy contracts usually have a term of three years. So if you join when you are 20 and do not become the first team starter early on, you will receive your first professional or senior contract at the age of 23. Leinster actually awarded a 22-year-old a freshman academy contract this summer who had impressed with his club in the All Ireland League.
I love the fact that there is room for late-stage developers to get into the pro game, but in my opinion they should get a senior contract at this stage of their life. It’s already a short career and starting to make decent money at 25 isn’t going to create much of a nest egg. The average professional career is only seven years now, so time is precious.
There is no guarantee that an academy player will and should not be awarded a senior contract. Top sport is ruthless – it’s about the survival of the fittest. My concern, however, is that if you postpone this starting point to 20 years, you run the risk that it will be not just the survival of the fittest but the survival of the richest. Many parents, especially those living outside the capital, struggle to pay the lodging costs of renting a room in Dublin and the incidental expenses such as college enrollment fees, buses and trains.
It can be difficult for families who had planned a part-time job for their son to pay for college and then have to continue funding to pursue their dream of becoming professional rugby players.
I remember sitting in our shared offices in the Valleys of Gwent with the Dragons Academy staff to watch a Dragons U18 game against the Blues not long after I started there. A 17-year-old Dragon who was not a member of the academy ran across the field after a penalty that hit the post and fell into the dead ball area. I asked who this boy was and was told Rio Dyer, but was also told to forget about him as he worked in a call center and couldn’t commit to training. I arranged a meeting with the player and his mother. His job was to connect friends and families with inmates in prisons across the UK for phone calls. He had some funny stories to tell. We found a bit of budget internally and brought the Welsh Sevens on board to top it up, and he took a big cut to get into the academy full-time, but he had enough to pay the rent and support himself . Rio now has a senior contract after playing for Wales under 20, has 15 senior games with the Dragons and many in Wales are expecting him to fulfill his dream of playing for his country’s senior team.
In the semifinals of the Leinster Senior Cup season 2019/20, my old school Newbridge played against a brilliant St. Three from this St. Michael’s team are now in the Leinster Academy. Lee Baron, Jack Boyle, and Chris Cosgrave are names to look out for for years to come. The captain of St. Michael that day was Will Hickey # 8, who is an outstanding player and leader. Will has signed an academy contract with the Ospreys and is highly valued in Swansea.
But the player of the game that day was a boy named Lucas Berti Newman, who took the game by the collar when he was 16. He showed that day that he is a player with incredible skills and vision.
Lucas grew up in Chile, but his father Seb had been a boarder at Newbridge College in 1996 and was actually part of the squad that lost to Leo Cullen’s Blackrock dream team in the SCT final that year. Seb wanted his two sons to have the opportunity to study in Ireland – college and rugby – so he moved in with them when Lucas was 14 and Sebastian was 16.
So that both boys could finish school at the same time, Lucas skipped the transition year and caught up with Seb. Lucas left school in June at the age of 17, a year young, and was training with the Leinster U19 that summer when the prospect of at least two, probably three years in prison dawned. His dream is to become a rugby pro, organized a lawsuit with the Bristol Bears and it was not surprising that the majority of the people who saw him play Pat Lam was impressed and offered him a three-year deal, which he signed. He’ll be going to college there too, which is great, but Bristol’s dedication to developing him further increases his chances of living his dream.
With another young Leinster player, Karl Martin von Boyne RFC, signed with the Montpellier Academy this summer, I wonder if other clubs have now discovered a weakness in our academy system and are realizing that some of our best talents can be picked up . Will we lose the next Craig Casey or Jordan Larmour because of our conservative contract system?
Incidentally, the top lot of the Orby sale in 2018 was a filly by the winning sire Galileo, who was later named Luck on Sunday. This horse was bought for 2.5 million euros, has run four times and has raised a measly £ 756 in prize money for its connections. Good and bad decisions are made every year, but it’s easy, if you don’t buy, you don’t drive. Anyone could see Garry Ringrose’s ability at 23, the art is in recognizing it and supporting the decision at 18.