Academy Manager Patrick O’Grady dissects this past season through the lens of the Academy set-up at London Irish, examining the offerings of his Academy stars and also what steps are being taken to ensure the Hazelwood production line continues to fashion great young players.
The breakthrough of several Academy players into the first team and on to international recognition hearkens back to players of decades before at London Irish, with Henry Arundell and Will Joseph having boarded the plane to tour with England in Australia this July.
The astute unearthing of gems such as Tom Pearson, who have been absorbed into the Senior Academy roster in the 2021/22 season, have also had a notable impact in first team performances.
How does O’Grady analyse the evolution of his operation this year?
“This season has been a huge step forward, in particular having had the effect of Covid-19 over the last 18 months,” O’Grady explained.
“To see the whole programme fully up-and-running from the youngest Development Player Programme (DPP) age group at under-14s all the way through up to the top-end of the Senior Academy has been an amazing feeling.
“I think everyone is very relieved having seen the impact we are now having on our player development within our pathway, through Covid limited activity was allowed to take place, but seeing the whole machine up-and-running smoothly is not only a relief but an exciting time for the Academy.”
Henry Arundell, Lucas Brooke, Chandler Cunningham-South, Michael Dykes, Alexander Harmes and Tom Pearson are the six Academy players that have made the next step and earned their first-team debuts over the course of last term.
All bar Pearson were welcomed into the professional arena in the Premiership Rugby Cup and were the foundations of an historic run to the final that utilised over 50 players.
“It is ultimately the reason why we do the job, because we are very passionate about player development.
“A lot of those lads we picked up around 14 years of age and seeing them come through every channel and stage of the pathway and step on the pitch at Brentford as a first team player is an unbelievable feeling, one that I can’t describe nor put the right words to get across to anyone.
“It makes you feel very proud and thankful for everyone’s hard work that has gone in along the way.”
Having outlined the gratification that himself and his staff have shared when seeing those players clad in green on a matchday, O’Grady discloses how internal relationship dynamics mature with the development of the Hazelwood boys.
“I suppose it changes at every step of the Academy, initially they are one of a huge number of players in their age group and as they go through the pathway it starts to narrow down.
“As the numbers get smaller, you build a closer relationship with those players; you talk to their families, what they’re like and how receptive they are to various types of feedback, it’s a very personal relationship you have.
“Then there are specific people, whether that be coaches, physios or members of the Strength and Conditioning department, that build up a really tight relationship.
“Coming into the Senior Academy, it’s very much the same but under the magnifying glass- you see these players day in, day out with a specific objective of getting them to that end goal.
“When they make their senior debut, there is an initial integration between the coaches in the Academy and Senior squad, which is excellent, but it isn’t until that player is playing consistently for that first team when they are effectively handed over.
“It’s very much a fluid transition between Senior Academy and the first team depending on their exposure and demands from the first team, so it is very individual from player to player.”
Whilst headlines have been enrapt on the likes of Arundell and Pearson, the perhaps left-field signature of Cunningham-South from obscurity to Club and international appearances has intrigued many in the supporter base.
Having presented the Kiwi with his first senior matchday jersey a few weeks prior, the Academy Manager outlines the recruitment strategy behind securing the versatile forward.
“We were contacted by someone in New Zealand who said that this lad was without a Club, so we saw some footage from school and judging by that it was hard to believe he had only left school 12 months prior.
“Looking at him now, he looks like mature player in their mid-20s, physically imposes himself like a mature adult, but it is very easy to forget that he is a younger, more immature lad in the grander scheme of things.
“We looked at the footage and knew he had something we do not come across too often.”
Capable in the second and back-row, Cunningham-South has already made appearances in all of the Gallagher Premiership, Premiership Rugby Cup and also his Under-20s Six Nations debut for England.
“Yes, there was a lot to work on, but he possesses the physical foundations that you would struggle to otherwise build in a player, coupled with his physicality, that desire to carry the ball and aggression in the contact area.
“Since joining our environment his rate of progression has been huge, considering when he was thrown into the environment, he looked a little bit at sea.
“As a 19-year-old, he has essentially left school, moved to England, joined London Irish and within a few months he started making real progression in his game as he worked very closely with our Academy Forwards Coach, Jonathan Fisher.
“To see him improve on a match-by-match basis when he was on loan at Esher, get England under-20s selection and then his senior debut in the space of a few weeks is again, quite incredible.”
“They have been so crucial,” O’Grady states of Tom Pearson and Henry Arundell, just two of an all-star cast of youthful talent who grasped their opportunity at Premiership and European rugby in the 2021/22 season.
“I remember Tom’s first appearance at Exeter away was a man of the match performance in a win, so to see someone like that who joined our Academy system at a later date and have such an influence on a Premiership level is quite incredible.
“The same goes for Henry, you look at the crucial tries he has scored in games to bring us back in contention, it’s amazing to see the impact these young lads are having on the senior professional game.
“We were all sure they would have bright futures, but we didn’t think they would transition as quickly as they have done.”
Pearson, Arundell and Australia-bound dynamic centre Will Joseph have all pledged their commitment to the Exiles cause in the last few weeks, with every new signature vindicating the work of O’Grady and his staff.
“I think it feels like it is a reward for everyone’s dedication over the last number of years,” maintains O’Grady.
“People refer back to when we lost a number of our Academy products, but that is in the past. It is because of the structures and systems we now have in place to enabled us to develop, produce and retain players for our first team.
“What the boys are achieving now is a great reward for the years and years that have gone into these young players coming through, and it is quite easy for people to forget how much time and effort goes into these lads as they don’t just appear in the first team.”
With five of the six London Irish representatives at a recent England training camp at The Lensbury from the Academy, massive strides have been taken by the Club to reclaim their right to international recognition with the aid of the Academy arm of the Club.
“It is phenomenal, at England under-18s this year we had four players, at under-19s we had two boys selected and at under-20s was six boys playing, along with one selected for Ireland U19 and one with Scotland U18, which is fantastic representation for the Academy on the international stage.
“We have always produced players age-grade levels, and now to have the quality of player coming through to genuinely be in contention for senior selection is a step beyond anything that we have done in my time at the Academy.
“It just shows that everything we are putting in place is for the long term, and the adjustments and tweaks in how we do things, which include additional members of staff in the younger age groups, has a knock-on effect three, four, five years down the line and is what we are seeing come to fruition now.”
History being made on the domestic front has led to another landmark season ahead for the Exiles, having qualified for the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time in over a decade.
With such heights being achieved, O’Grady maintains that there has been a precedent set for the current squad and those who will come after, in the Academy or otherwise.
“For me, I think it is only the starting point.
“Whilst they have been impactful, pretty soon it will be a requirement of them week in, week out so it won’t be the odd try or appearance here and there- they need to back that up on a consistent basis.
“This is the standard that we expect now in the Club of not only players coming through the Academy system, but also players joining the Club.
“Whilst they are young and have had a bit of experience now, they will need to understand that this will be the standard required to perform week in, week out and any other young member of the Academy or player joining the Club in the future will have to meet that standard.”
Irish’s storied background in nourishing young talent has, in historical terms at least, set them apart from many other Academies in the country.
The current representation on a matchday of such Academy stars, both for Club and country, would infer that such a resurgence is in action and could be here to stay for some time yet.
“It would be hard to compare to others as I spend my time in Academies and environments in other sports and less so rugby, but all I know about our environment is that we have a very dedicated group of staff who are genuinely passionate about being the best Academy in the country.
“Not only do the staff back that up with their own individual development, but the time and dedication they put into the players coming through the system is unrivalled.
“I think we have a good consistency in our staff, and we haven’t had a high turnover in recent years, and instead we have added in terms of recruiting quality members of team and retained them in order to build on our programme year on year.
“Academies with a high turnover of staff would have to rebuild year on year, whereas we have managed to kick on with our programme because every year we look to try and improve it.”
Off the field in west London, the Academy system as a whole has adapted to certain challenges (Covid-19 being no exception) in order to being conducive in having more young players make the leap from Sunbury to Brentford.
“The biggest step forward in recent months is the addition of staff to our Strength and Conditioning department, so now we have quality practitioners across the pathway through DPP to the Senior Academy and have the provision in place, so our athletes are coming through.
“Issues can be found earlier, foundations can be in place and the levels continue to rise in terms of the Strength and Conditioning requirements in order to continue to perform at the top level.
“I certainly think we have got the staff in place to facilitate that from within our Academy so their boys can fulfil their roles, whether that be in a training or playing capacity with the seniors.
“It is also a more efficient and cost-effective way for the Club to run ultimately, so that investment is probably one of the biggest parts, as well as recruiting another DPP Manager to get a real hold on the DPP programme post-Covid- that has been paramount for me.”
This week’s confirmation of the new Academy intake ahead of the new season saw five of the seven players already having tasted international experience, and with such a varied cohort, O’Grady is passionate for what the future holds.
“We have a real good variety of positions, so we have signed seven players and we are very excited to see them in our full-time environment.”
“Although these boys have missed out on a large part of their development through Covid, we did what we could to stay on top of it and they might take a little longer to integrate into the full-time programme.
“However, with the application and desire to make it as a rugby player that I have seen from them, I think will put them in a really good position.
“Ultimately nobody can predict what that transition will look like into the senior game, it will take time and we’re looking forward to supporting those boys’ development.
“They will add some excitement to that young group of Senior Academy players we have and obviously our aim is to make sure some of these guys go on to represent the first team and have long and successful careers at the Club.”
The head of the Academy was definitive in his regard for the personnel working alongside him and the role that they have played in the past 12 months and beyond.
“A large proportion of our staff have been on this journey for a number of years now, and I am thrilled that their hard work is coming to fruition.
“The hours and hours that have been put into our DPP programme have set the foundation for our Academy.
“The Junior Academy has transformed in the last 18 months, and coupled with the development of our Strength and Conditioning and medical provision, is part of the reason we are now producing consistent quality players into our Senior Academy.
“I am especially pleased for James Lightfoot-Brown and Jonathan Fisher that the boys that they have worked with for a number of years are now not only representing England age-grade teams, but the London Irish first team and the senior England team.”