NIGEL CAROLAN IS into his 10th season as Connacht’s academy manager and believes the province’s efforts in tracking down talent from near and far is finally starting to bear fruit.
The former Connacht player began his role with the academy in 2004. The province, he notes, has roughly 8% of the population so will always be fighting a battle to produce enough quality rugby players to challenge the country’s three other teams. In recent years, however, the Connacht fan-base has grown and a greater number of indigenous players are making the breakthrough.
“We take a hollistic approach,” Carolan told TheScore.ie. “It is just as much about character development and how lads carry themselves than rugby skills and on-field ability. It is about self awareness and confidence building.”
The high profile success for Connacht, in the past 18 months, comes courtesy of scrum-half Kieran Marmion and Robbie Henshaw, the player tipped by many in the game as Brian O’Driscoll’s outside centre replacement for Ireland. The duo, Carolan says, are prime examples of the ‘opportunity and availability’ mantra he preaches to all in the academy.
“If you get the opportunity, through your own form or an injury to a senior player, you must be available. That means being ready physically, mentally and tactically. So, when that chance does come up — and its often a short window of opportunity — that they take it; they make an impression. It is putting your hand up and saying ‘I’m here as well’.”
The phrase Connacht head coach Pat Lam uses is ‘next cab off the rank’. The Kiwi has the academy players training with the senior team on a regular basis and has given chances to young players such as Jack Carty, Darragh Leader and Eoghan Masterson this season. Henshaw and Marmion are the same age, or younger in Henshaw’s case, as that trio but are established first team players by now.
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While Connacht have not been shy about recruiting players from outside of the province that are Irish qualified [Marmion, Brett Wilkinson], hoping to become qualified [Danie Poolman, Jake Heenan] or seasoned pros [George Naoupu, Craig Clarke], Henshaw has been within the province’s set-up since he was 15. He is the inspiration for up an coming Connacht players. Carolan recalled:
Robbie is not someone who would have shone in the U17s or U18 inter-pros. He was not a star player but we knew he had the foundations. He’s resilient, coach-able, self-motivated has has a good physical frame. He was a player who was lacking confidence as a young guy but he started to blossom after U18s. He was called into the Irish Schools side and, from there, it took off.”
“He got his chance [early last season] when Gavin Duffy was injured and was facing a steep learning curve. It did not faze him,” Carolan added. “He is very grounded, level headed and patient. They are important characteristics for guys hoping to bridge that gap. That cycle of games, in the pro game, can be physically and mentally draining but he has handled it well.”
While Henshaw trained extensively with Ireland during the Six Nations set-up, Marmion has only made fleeting appearances on the training ground, with Joe Schmidt’s side, since he toured North america last summer. The scrum-half was born in Wales but has Loughrea roots and came to Connacht through the clubs Irish Exiles system. Carolan explains that Marmion was supposed to train with the club for a few weeks, on a trial basis, but was fast-tracked to the academy.
He was part of the Connacht U20 side, which featured Carty, Shane Layden and Conor Finn, that won all their inter-pros in 2011. “They were a good group of guys that brought out the best of each other,” said Carolan.
The academy manager reveals Marmion’s breakthrough season [2012/13] was tough from a personal perspective as his father was fighting illness. He commented, “Kieran is so resilient and to be able to play non-stop throughout that season shows the mental strength of the guy. He is a tough character.
“He will succeed at Connacht and in the international environment. No doubt about it. He’s going to be great.”
Carolan has also tipped Ireland U20 players Sean O’Brien and Rory Moloney to appear for the senior side before the season is out. The other player Carolan has advised TheScore.ie to watch out for is a scrum-half that may press Marmion for the No.9 jersey over the next decade. “Caoilin Blade is an exciting rugby player that could prove very good off the bench. I wouldn’t be surprised if he featured at some stage too. If he got the opportunity, he wouldn’t let the side down.”