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'The rugby I'm watching at the highest level is the most skilful I've ever seen' | LIAM TOLAND

Elite rugby is the most skilful it has ever been, but kids must still be allowed to explore and flourish in less-structured coaching systems, says former Leinster and Munster loose forward Liam Toland.



Elite rugby is the most skilful it has ever been, but kids must still be allowed to explore and flourish in less-structured coaching systems, says former Leinster and Munster loose forward Liam Toland.

Former Leinster and Ireland centre Gordon D'Arcy wrote in The Irish Times this week that he has seen a decline in the 'flair' coming from Leinster's schools, particularly among the outside backs.

This comes after Leinster were beaten by Ulster in their most recent URC encounter. D'Arcy's argument was that players coming out of the Leinster system seem to be much more regimented and structure orientated than he would like.

However, Toland feels there is more to the argument than meets the eye, agreeing that less structure is needed at underage levels.

'Rugby is the most skilful I've ever seen'

Speaking on Wednesday Night Rugby, Toland responded to D'Arcy's article, suggesting that the elite skillsets are higher than they've ever been.

"The rugby I'm watching at the highest level is the most skilful I've ever seen," Toland said. "Players, second rows, tightheads, looseheads are all expected to do infinitely more than they did 20 years ago.

"The skillset expectation of players has really risen, and that includes the AIL. The quality of the First Division is absolutely sensational in comparison to when I played 20 years ago."

"It comes back to the proof in the pudding," Toland added. "Leinster were in two European Cup finals, the most recent one, there were six tries scored on the day, three by Leister, three by La Rochelle.

"That was fully flat-out quality, skills, brilliance. So, if that's what we're looking at as the template, I'm saying whatever the hell those schools are doing, they're doing well."

Schools need less regimented structure

However, Toland did agree with the suggestion that schools are being influenced far too much by professional structures at the moment.

"I do have a huge sympathy for the imposition of professional structures into schools and underage rugby. I definitely get that. There should be a moratorium, if that's the right word, for any form of professional structures into underage rugby.

"I think kids should be allowed to play. Kids should be allowed to explore the width of the pitch. If you're a loosehead prop, and your team is playing a 1-3-2 or whatever, you may never touch the ball because you happen to be on the wrong side of the pitch.

"If I was to take anything out of the argument, I would say that imposing professional structures into underage rugby should be a very slow thing.

"A lot of coaches, depending on the quality of the coach, may lean heavily on what they see Munster, Leinster or Connacht doing, and it's not appropriate for kids, because kids should be allowed to play and learn."

U20 level is the time for professionalism

While underage skillets are continually on the rise, the gap between age-grade rugby and professional senior rugby is still massive. Toland believes this 19-21 year-old window is the ideal time to bring in the professional structures to complement the skillsets that have been allowed to flourish prior to that point.

"There's a monumental jump from U20s in how the game is played when it goes into the senior ranks," Toland said. "So, something happens at 19-21 years old in how they play the game. For me, that's the window.

"There has to be structures in everything we do in life, but it doesn't have to be as regimented. Maybe that will give a little bit of opportunity.

"[D'Arcy's article is] a really good article, it asks a lot of questions. I think the simple thing is, in underage rugby, kids should be allowed to flourish. We need to design a system that allows that to happen, and doesn't impose too many structures too early."

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