‘They need to be able to say, ‘I can see myself getting a green jersey”

LATE LAST MONTH, the Ireland Exiles U18 side painted a pretty picture of the work being done by the Exiles branch of the IRFU.

The U18s had suffered defeats to Munster and Connacht in the first two games of their week-long tour, but finished with a convincing and entertaining 29-14 success over the Leinster Clubs side at Donnybrook.

In the August sunshine, pockets of the crowd filtered onto the pitch afterwards, congratulating sons, nephews, and cousins. There were hugs between family members who hadn’t seen each other for some time, smiles all round. A lovely rugby moment.

It was a particularly satisfying day for Wayne Mitchell, the IRFU Exiles’ talent identification officer, who played a central role in bringing the squad together for the latest tour.

Mitchell, formerly an elite player development officer with Leinster, says the Exiles are focused on building a ”family-orientated environment,” explaining that some of the players’ parents follow these tours around Ireland in camper vans.

Having taken up his role last year, Mitchell is excited by how the Exiles branch is developing and the scope for further growth in the coming years.

Only recently, the Exiles have helped the likes of Kieran Marmion, Munster’s Sam Arnold, Lorcan Dow, Conor Joyce and Kieran Treadwell of Ulster, Harlequins’ Niall Saunders, Brett Connon of Newcastle, and Leicester’s George McGuigan to prosper.

The Exiles’ mission, in their own words, is “to identify and develop potential Irish professional players living on the Great British mainland.”

The U18s side that won in Donnybrook featured players from places like Bath, London, Bristol and Weybridge. Every one of them is Irish-qualified, whether through being born in Ireland themselves, or their parents or grandparents’ birth here.

“People think I drive to schools and ask, ‘Who’s Irish?’” says Mitchell with a laugh when the topic of identifying Irish-qualified players for the Exiles comes up.

Although Mitchell and Mark Blair, the development manager, are the only two full-time Exiles employees, there is a highly-organised system in place for bringing together the players that go on to make up squads like last month’s U18 one.

A legion of volunteers makes it possible.

Essentially, the Exiles run trial days twice a year in four different regions, each catering for players in the U16, U17 and U18s age grades. This regional programme takes place in October and February – each of them featuring two days in London, one in Leeds, one in Warwick in the Midlands, and the fifth day in Filton, near Bristol.

Kieran Marmion came through the Exiles system.

The Exiles attract Irish-qualified players to these ‘festival days’ by advertising through schools and clubs, on Facebook, Twitter, and any rugby website where young players might have their interest piqued.

“It doesn’t matter what standard you play,” says Mitchell, who is fittingly based out of the town of Rugby. “If you’re Irish-qualifed, come down and we’ll have a look.”

Roughly 700 players in total turn up at the trial days in October and February, and from that pool the Exiles pick teams for an inter-regional competition in March.

While the U16s is “more about an introduction into the Exiles,” the U17s inter-regionals are where the U18 touring squad for the following summer is picked. Each region plays the three others, whereafter 45 players are selected for a training camp.

Next, a whittled-down group of 32 plays against new opposition – “this year we played Sweden and the Welsh Exiles,” says Mitchell – and the U18 touring party of 27 or 28 players is then selected.

It’s a hectic schedule that wouldn’t be possible without the selflessness of the horde of volunteers who drive the Exiles.

“Only two of us are employed by the IRFU full-time, that’s myself and Mark,” says Mitchell. “All the rest of the people you see on tour [the management team was 10-strong in August], or those working on the regional programme are volunteers.

“It’s old coaches that have maybe been there for years and work hard, or it could be young players like Peter Synnott who played for Belvo, or Brian Croke who played for Boyne, or Ed Wynne who played for Newbridge a few years ago.

“Some of them are playing local rugby in England and they want to be part of the Exiles. They come and help on the regional programme. I have a lot of respect for what the volunteers do, the time they put in. None of our coaches get any money. They do it for the love.”

The Exiles’ goal is to feed players into the professional game, and that naturally means providing players for the Irish provinces.

Munster’s Sam Arnold originally moved to Ulster from England. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A player like Kieran Marmion is the perfect example of what can be achieved, but Mitchell has been more focused with his attempts to bring players to Ireland in recent times.

The introduction of a ’summer programme’ this year has been a clever move.

“Before this summer, I contacted the academies and said, ‘What do you need in your academy or sub-academy?’” explains Mitchell.

“If they say they need a scrum-half, I tell them about the guys I have. We say, ‘We will pay to send the players over to your summer training, you look at them for four or five weeks. If you like them, keep them. If you don’t, they come home again.”

The Exiles placed two players in Ulster, two in Connacht and two in Munster this summer, with James Lennon [ex-Saracens U18] and Cameron Gray [a 6’8″ lock] doing well particularly well with the southern province.

Conor Wharton [Ireland U18s earlier this year] was one of those placed with Connacht, as they needed a fullback in their academy system.

Meanwhile, Ollie Brown [also Ireland U18s last season] and Lewis Sampson [ex-London Irish U18s] have featured in Ulster’s academy/development sides recently.

“It’s no use us saying that we’ll send over a number six and Leinster have already got a rake of sixes, for example,” says Mitchell. “Munster don’t have any scrum-half in their academy, so James is currently in Munster.

“We sent him over and are funding him, and now he’s being looked at for the Irish U20s and he’s been playing the academy games. The same with Cameron: they needed a second row, so he went over. We’re filling in gaps as a resource rather than just sending loads of numbers over.”

But the Exiles are not just about bringing Irish-qualified players back to Ireland’s professional game. They are simply focused on helping Irish-qualified players into a pro set-up, therefore growing the Irish playing pool.

Niall Saunders played for Ireland U20s in June. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Scrum-half Niall Saunders, who played for Ireland at the World Rugby U20 Championship in June despite being only 18, is a fine example of how a move across the Irish Sea is not alway best.

“He had an opportunity to come back to Ireland, but he’s very young; he only turned 18 in December. From a rugby point of view, it might have been good, but from a mental point of view, or parental point of view, it was better to have another year at home.

“It was probably the same with Kieran Treadwell. We were keen to get him to Leinster when he was 18 but he decided to stay with Quins. Now he’s come to Ulster.

“Brett Connon is in the Newcastle academy and that’s a good environment there, better than maybe coming to Ireland and only playing club rugby. I think it’s important we keep these players involved at that level.

“If there’s no space for them in Ireland, we want to keep them in the loop.”

Mitchell’s work is not solely in the sphere of underage rugby, as he maintains connections with Irish-qualified players in the senior ranks in England too.

He makes regular contact with players like Jerry Sexton, Mark Flanagan, and Tom Farrell and any other Irishmen plying their trade in the English leagues. Leicester’s Ben Betts and others are now on his radar.

While the perception has long been that the IRFU ignores Irishmen based abroad, Mitchell points out that not everyone can fit into the four provinces.

“If they’re playing, they’re developing,” says Mitchell. “The IRFU are conscious that there are a lot of players in England and they are supportive. Recently, when I met with Saracens, Mark Flanagan was there.

“He’s done really well, is enjoying it and will hopefully get rugby when the Saracens second rows are with England. That’s good for Ireland and for the provinces to see him playing at that level week in, week out.

Mitchell is a former Ireland U18 head coach. Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO

“It may give him an opportunity to come back at some stage. It’s giving the guys game time, rather than just being a professional trainers and holding a tackle bag.”

At underage level, Mitchell does admit that it is harder for Exiles players to convince national team coaches of their development – given the relative lack of face time. As a former Ireland U18 head coach himself, Mitchell understands the issue well.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, players in Ireland are seen more, get more resources and you can change their habits. When I was Ireland U18 coach, if I had a prop from the Exiles and one from Leinster, I was going to see the Leinster player more.

“I could see him changing and improving. The guy on the Exiles, how do I know he’s improving?”

Answering that question is now a large part of Mitchell’s job. He nominates players for national team selection after each tour – look out for some of these U18 Exiles – and then maintains regular contact with those players and their club sides or academies in England.

Whatsapp groups, constant video footage, always staying on top of how these young players are progressing. All of it is fed back to national team coaches.

The academies in England are slightly different, running un-contracted U18 programmes, and Mitchell has worked hard to develop strong relationships with the clubs to ensure they don’t feel the Exiles are “just taking away.”

The financial support to the Exiles from the IRFU is fine, according to Mitchell, but he feels there is room for growth in “personnel and opening a bigger network.”

He invested much of his summer getting the Exiles’ women’s programme up and running, with four girls from an August trial day already having featured with Ireland.

One of the next steps the Exiles will look to take is in the sphere of sevens rugby, tapping into the popularity of the seven-player code in English youth rugby. Mitchell also wants to build greater alignment with the IRFU’s player welfare and medical structures.

The entire Exiles branch continues to grow each season and Mitchell is determined that the pathway is clear for every player involved.

James Lennon was placed with Munster over the summer. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“We need to be even better, more organised, so people buy into it and want to be part of what we do,” he says.

“They need to be able to see a clear pathway, to be able to say, ‘I can see myself getting a green jersey.’ I’m not sure how clear that’s been in the past. It’s not that far away for them.”

Thought the Exiles can somewhat be out of sight, out of mind, Mitchell, Blair and the army of volunteers are helping to change the perception.

Most importantly, young Irish-qualified players across the sea are realising more and more what they can achieve.

“We are seen as outsiders sometimes,” says Mitchell. “It’s about changing that perception and that’s what we do on the field.

“Some of players, it depends on their personality, some of the guys are extroverts and they fit into the Irish system, but some of them do feel like Exiles.

“For me, say the six boys who came to Ireland in the summer,  you have to buy into the culture of the provinces, rather than being an outsider.”

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