By Cecilia Canazza
The 2012 edition of the IRB Talent Optimization Programme saw 32 up-and-coming rugby professionals from 20 different countries gather at the Stellenbosch Academy of Sport in South Africa recently.
The recognition of the programme is growing amongst the IRB’s Member Unions and as IRB Training and Medical Manager Mark Harrington explains, the number of applicants is increasing every year.
“From having to encourage the Unions to select candidates we have this year received more than 70 applications,” explained Harrington, who was in Stellenbosch for the latest edition of the programme between 22-28 July.
The Talent Optimization Programme is designed to bring together coaches, match officials and strength and conditioning coaches, who have only been included since last year to further expand the reach of the programme.
The programme is mainly aimed at individuals from IRB Strategic Investment or Targeted Unions that do not have elite coach or refereeing programmes but have big ambitions.
The countries represented were Portugal, Canada, Namibia, Belgium, Fiji, Scotland, Romania, Argentina, Uruguay, Samoa, Russia, Chile, Singapore, USA, Poland, Kenya, Japan, Brazil, Georgia and Germany.
Famous names in attendance
This year 12 coaches, 10 match officials and 10 strength and conditioning coaches were selected following an assessment process which considers individual attributes and potential.
Among the coaches participating this year were Inoke Male and Stephen Betham, the new head coaches of Fiji and Samoa respectively, Fiji’s Under 20 coach Sale Sorovaki and a number of former Test players, including Romanian Marius Tincu and Pablo Lemoine of Uruguay. The match officials on the course included two women in Leah Berard and Sarah Otieno, who have both been on the panel for the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy.
For the duration of the programme, participants are exposed to and trained on the latest trends and issues in rugby by a number of talented experts and experienced lecturers, while being mentored by some core IRB consultants such as Craig White and Des Ryan for strength and conditioning, Richie Dixon for coaching and Tappe Henning and Bernd Gabbei for match officials.
Previous editions of the Talent Optimization Programme have included guest presenters such as RWC 2007 winning Springbok coach Jake White, former Springbok assistant coach Alistair Coetzee, SARU Chief Executive Jurie Roux and Rassie Erasmus.
Amongst this year’s speakers were Wallaby wing David Campese, South African coaches Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienebar, Paul Treu – the Springbok Sevens coach – and Louis Koen, and IRB panel referee Steve Walsh.
The programme also included sport scientists such as Tim Noakes, Ross Tucker and Sport Science Institute of SA Manager Justin Durandt, who was excited to be involved and able to share his knowledge and experience with the participants.
“The IRB TOP is a great idea to involve all disciplines and encourage collaboration,” admitted Durandt. “A lot of research is done in these fields that doesn’t always filter to coaches, strength and conditioning professionals or referees and this is a great way of exposing them to this, giving the participants and their countries great opportunities of development.
“It’s particularly interesting to see other people’s approaches to development, and even being a presenter is a good learning experience that comes from the feedback and the healthy debates generated during the lectures.
“Throughout the year everyone is busy and the risk is to become isolated from the newest approaches and techniques and this is a great way of coming together and facing the challenges of our profession.”
By hosting this programme, the IRB is looking to give an opportunity of growth and assist the Unions who don’t have the structures in place to reach their high performance objectives, and Harrington is happy with the results so far.
“This programme is a big investment for us but we’ve had a great return. The results of the programme are easier to monitor with the referees as it’s the IRB who makes the appointments,” said Harrington.
“In the last four years over 15 match officials have stepped up to international levels at the Junior World Rugby Trophy and Junior World Championship. I was very pleased to see that at JWRT 2012 in Salt Lake City many of the teams’ coaching and conditioning staff were graduates of the TOP.”
The best so far
Now in its seventh year, the Talent Optimization Programme has grown significantly from the first edition in 2005 when it was only aimed at African countries and welcomed just six participants.
“It is hard to make an immediate judgment on the success of this year’s TOP, but I would say it has probably been the best edition so far,” continued Harrington.
“This is thanks to a number of factors, which include the top of the class facilities that Stellenbosch Academy of Sport has to offer, the increased collaboration between the disciplines and the optimisation of staffing levels we have worked on to make the course as hands on as possible. All the people of SARU who collaborate with us are also to thank for their willingness to share their knowledge and experiences.”
Throughout the course participants are given a different theme each day around which the lectures and practical sessions are based. A large amount of interdisciplinary activities take place in which the three categories of participants assist each other to improve in their own department.
“We have made a conscious effort to bring the disciplines together, these professionals should work closely in order to improve their skills and to get a better understanding of the all-round high-performance environment,” added Harrington.
The feedback from participants during the course was very positive and all involved felt confident that the knowledge they had acquired in Stellenbosch will help the development of rugby in their countries.
“It has been a fantastic opportunity in a world-class environment with the most experienced speakers, it’s definitely the best thing that has happened to me in rugby,” said Dean Murten, a coach from Canada.
“I’d say the best thing about this course for me was to understand what it takes to be a high performance country and to take on all aspects of professionalism in coaching and talent identification.”
With Argentina making their debut in The Rugby Championship this month, it is an exciting time for the South American country and one referee Juan Sylvestre is keen to be a part of.
“It has been a wonderful experience, it’s my first international experience with rugby and all the knowledge I have acquired will definitely help me improve on and off the field,” Sylvestre insisted.
“It’s very important to understand the different levels and speed of the game in different countries in order to be an international referee.
“Having the chance to meet and discuss the game and the role of match officials with top professionals like Steve Walsh (in South Africa to referee the Super Rugby semi final in nearby Cape Town) was amazing. Learning from his experience will be very useful to all us referees.”
For more information visit www.irbpassport.com.