One of the most familiar laments regarding the game of rugby on these shores is the drop off in playing numbers between youths and senior rugby. While this issue is undoubtedly a problem, it is by no means unresolvable and is being addressed through competitions such as the under-21 Fraser McMullen Cup, a tournament featuring the cream of the country's underage club sides, which consistently produces extremely high levels of both drama and skill. Lansdowne dramatically claimed this year's instalment of the McMullen, defeating Trinity in a game that Lansdowne under-21 director of rugby, Colin Goode aptly described as "great for the neutral but heart attack stuff for those involved". The final truly was a spectacle for any neutral lucky enough to see the two Dublin sides duke it out. Lansdowne stormed into a 22-7 lead only for Trinity to claw their way back into the game and eventually lead with only minutes retaining. Although things looked bleak for the Dublin 4 club, the experience of losing finals in the recent past would prove invaluable as Lansdowne dramatically managed to score a late try to atone for the hurt of previous seasons. After such an exciting, topsy-turvy encounter, Goode admitted that emotions were in a peculiar state after the final whistle had been blown. "It was relief more than anything. We've been in three or four finals and we lost them by the same margin that Trinity did." Despite scraping over the line, there can be no qualms regarding Lansdowne's worthiness, having only tasted the bitter pill of defeat once all year.
Routes to professional rugby are undoubtedly limited in this country with only four provinces and extremely limited space in the academies and it is competitions such as the Fraser Mc Mullen and McCorry Cups that can offer players who may not have been recognised in school a second opportunity to impress not only the Irish provinces but also overseas clubs. The standard is certainly high enough to warrant attention from the professional ranks and a spectacular schools career is not a pre-requisite for achievement at this level as Goode attests to. "Its a very strong standard. The top four or five sides in the u-21 premier league would compete all the way up to division 2A in AIL. There's some fantastic players there. Some lads who didn't stand out in school have blossomed and some guys will blossom further. We have guys who never went past the first round of an SCT who were then an all Ireland final and who will be in a McCorry Cup final."
Despite coming out on the losing side of such an epic final, Trinity director of rugby Tony Smeeth is similarly convinced of the importance of these underage competitions in developing talent and holds the Fraser McMullen Cup in the highest esteem. "It's the second most important competition below the AIL I think. Its kind of a stepping stone but it's something we target every year."
While competitions such as the Fraser McMullen are important for all clubs, they are of particular significance to Trinity and other educational institutions, whose players are only involved with the club for a four year cycle and Smeeth is keen to emphasise the system of continuity the club tries to implement from under-21s to senior. "The McMullen is especially important in Trinity where the first team are under-22s so those guys will be our firsts in two years. Guys can see a direct link for under-21s to senior. If a guy is on the premier squad, chances are he'll be playing firsts after so there's a real link there."
While there is undoubted benefits for players involved in such a high standard of competition, the clubs who embrace the tournaments also stand to benefit in the long term as the u-21 set up allows club to create a clearly defined path to senior rugby. Goode believes that the experience his charges get is essential in developing the next generation of senior players. "The guys are nearly ready for senior rugby after playing. Last year we sent up nearly thirty lads from under-21s. We worked really hard on our under21s recruitment in the last few years and it feeds into the senior teams. All our teams have been playing at a high standard this year and that's down to the feeder system we have in place. The money isn't in senior rugby anymore to get a Kiwi or a South African in but if you get a guy at 21s you have them for life. Seventy percent of the Lansdowne squad have come through the underage system and we only foresee that growing. The under 21s are the life blood of Lansdowne."
As the old saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and if Lansdowne, AIL champions, place this much emphasis on their under-21s then surely it won't be long before other clubs begin to place similar faith in their under-21s set ups.
Article related to Under 20s team.
Article related to U21s v UCD fixture.