Ireland’s under 20s Six Nations campaign kicks off tonight at 8 pm against Wales with an impressive 9 UCD players selected in the 31-man squad. The College Tribune spoke to University College Dublin Ad Astra students Ben Brownlee and Fionn Gibbons who will be competing in this year’s 20s Six Nations, as well as UCD Rugby U20s’ manager Ian Wise to get their insight into the secrets behind the College’s success in producing players for the national set up.

UCD Rugby Football Club has managed to be a roaring success despite the college lifestyle often being the downfall of many promising rugby careers. Underage players, fresh from the taxing demands of school-boy rugby, tend to enjoy the reduced training schedule at the under 20s level. This newfound freedom allows them to explore, and receive, the full college experience, which often comes at the cost of their sporting ambitions. Yet this trend is less prominent with UCD RFC. Over the course of the last three decades, UCD has become a conveyor belt for the Irish Under 20 setup. Year on year there is a constant College presence in the national squad.. It appears UCD has found a formula to consistently attract the best young players in the country. But how do they do it? We asked UCD rugby royalty, Ian Wyse. 

Wyse has been involved with the UCD 20s for over 20 years. He has overseen the rise of several current Irish rugby stars such as Gary Ringrose, Dan Leavy, and Will Connors, to name a few. Speaking to the College Tribune, “Wysie” outlined a handful of key reasons as to why some of the best players choose UCD. According to him, UCD would be the obvious choice for any student because of its “academic support, excellent facilities and close relationship with Leinster Rugby”. He also stresses that while UCD lures in players that have “realistic hopes” of going pro, its inclusive environment is of paramount importance to its appeal, “We are not just about attracting representative talent. Everyone is equal. The academic experience is the primary reason that students apply”.

Of course, being a university is an advantage. After all, the vast majority of senior Irish internationals progressed through the schools’ rugby system. However, Trinity College Dublin is also a university. It also has students. Although, of the 23 man squad named to play Wales on Friday, none are from Trinity. Compare that to the eight UCD men selected in the final 23, seven of whom are in the starting fifteen. While Wyse listed some interesting, and undoubtedly important, aspects that contribute to UCD’s successful recruitment, there is another explanation that enhances UCD’s allure: Networking. The college’s proximity and connections to the top rugby schools in the country.

Blackrock College has won the Leinster Schools Senior Cup-widely recognised as the top rugby schoolboy competition in Ireland- a record 69 times. Blackrock is located less than two kilometres from UCD. St. Michael’s College, while only having two Senior Cups to their name, has produced more Leinster players than any of their rivals in the past ten years. Gerry Thornley, the rugby correspondent for The Irish Times, asserted in 2020 that Michael’s has become “the leading rugby feeder school in the country”. It is located right on the College’s doorstep,1.7 kilometres away from the new Centra to be exact.  The location of UCD, therefore, is a great asset. Locality, nonetheless, is not the be-all and end-all. Let’s not pretend that every single rugby player in Ireland comes from these two institutions. UCD’s strength, however, is that it brings in players from all over the country. The current UCD 20s squad encompasses players from Kildare, Meath, Tipperary and Cork. This has nothing to do with postcode or tradition. Fundamentally, UCD makes a great effort to reach out to secondary school students, across the board, through their prestigious Ad Astra elite sports scholarship. These scholarships facilitate exceptional athletes to achieve their sporting goals. 

Ben Brownlee and Fionn Gibbons are two products of the Ad Astra initiative. The UCD duo has both featured for UCD’s first XV in the AIL 1A this year, and are named at 12 and 13 respectively for the forthcoming fixture against Wales. The pair told the Tribune that being named in the U20s squad was “a big honour” and that they felt a “huge sense of pride” in their selection. Furthermore, they attribute at least some of their personal success to the “competition for places” in UCD that “drive the standards”. This point was reinforced by Ian Wyse, who highlighted the fact that the players “buy-in…they raise the standard of the group when they play with us”. Not only do they bring their own individual quality, but they are also spurred on by their College teammates, “some of the best players at school level, who would have played on underage provincial teams”. It is clear that UCD makes a conscious effort to attract not only a good calibre of players but also one with a solid work ethic, who is willing to incorporate themselves into the framework of the 20s set up. Judging by the evidence, this strategy is highly effective.

UCD rugby is an excellent platform for any player with professional aspirations. Its track record of securing pro contracts as well as the style of rugby- an emphasis on pace and intensity- makes it a desirable destination for young, up-and-coming athletes. Its close ties to Leinster rugby and its range of resources (physios, training gear, state of the art pitches etc.) makes it almost a no-brainer for college students.

Stephen Black – Sports Writer