If the success of the Irish Rugby Team is something of an anomaly at full international level given the relative playing resources available to the leading nations, then the same is very much true at Underage level. The Irish team's achievement in becoming the first Northern Hemisphere side to reach the final of the U-21 World Cup is an exceptional one.
The final of the tournament saw guys from the Third Division of the AIB All Ireland League come up against guys that play Super 12. The defeat is put in context by McDermott. "In drawing up their squad the New Zealanders draw up a shortlist of 160 players. They reckon that any 26 drawn from that selection would be good enough to at least reach the semi-final of the tournament. At this level New Zealand stand apart. They have won two of the last three tournaments and lost to South Africa in the final of the other." McDermott reckons that a couple of years ago the 'Baby Blacks' would have take an Irish 'A' team. So a win in the final was a very tall order. "They are just so big apart from anything else. They have a high percentage of Polynesians at that level and it is true that they develop physically that much earlier".
However, McDermott was confident that a Semi-Final was achievable. To do that, they had to overcome the French and Argentinians in the Pool. Close study of both sides had a pronounced effect on the gameplans used against each. The French were familiar opponents - Ireland having secured a first ever away result against them with a draw in the 6 Nations earlier in the season - and they selected a very mobile pack, looking to tire Ireland out with a wide game. Ireland turned this French strength into a weakness by taking them on up front and tiring out their pack. This paid off in the second half and resulted in a 27-19 win.
The Argentina side were a microcosm of their senior side - burly, forward-orientated, tough hombres. Their approach was to try to suck the life out of Ireland up front, but as McDermott says 'We were much fitter than they were and for the last twenty minutes they hardly touched the ball". Again Ireland targeted a weakness, this time a tidy footballing outhalf whose commitment to the tackle left a little to be desired. This channel paid dividends and Ireland ended up attacking them wide after the inroad had been made, moving their heavy pack around. Once again, attention to detail borne out of the video camera was a key factor in a 26-22 win.
Australia had made every Under-21 semi-final to date and represented a stern prospect. But Ireland produced the pick of their performances for this one, in the worst conditions of all. McDermott relishes the fact that "talking to their management after the match, they really didn't think we had it in our repertoire to do what we did to them. They had watched our game against France and figured on our playing a wham bam kind of game. But we hit them for two sweet backline tries within three minutes and they weren't able to recover from that". Ireland attacked what they perceived as an Australian weakness in their outside defensive system. In truth, Australia's set pieces weren't good and this was also central to a 26-13 win.
But, while careful analysis and planning throughout the event was important, so too was the long range approach. Having been involved in the two previous tournaments, McDermott was aware that there was no point in turning up if the squad was in bad shape after an exhausting season. And the days of Ireland selecting a squad and management and just sending them off to do their best is over. The Academy players, who provided the vast bulk of the squad, were carefully nurtured through the season, ensuring that they were fresh for the main event. A week long camp, at the Shannon Oaks Hotel in Portumna, prior to the competition was also critical, as team and personal objectives were set and gameplans and variations arrived at and communicated.
That said, the bottom line is that the players have to have the ability and the capacity to deliver on the day, over several days, and the players deserve enormous credit. "I reckon that there are 6-8 players from this squad that can go on to represent Ireland in the future" says McDermott. It's the sort of return that is likely to be required as many of the senior players are ageing together. McDermott cites the South African team that played and beat Ireland in June "They had four or five of the team that won the Under-21 World Cup in 2002 playing for them".
So does this mean that the Academy approach is working? "Well, it seems to be, as it has in other countries. But the Academy isn't consistent year on year - you won't always have the same level of ability coming through each year. At times we are struggling to fill the 48 places, to be honest. That said, 88.9% of those leaving the Academy go on to a professional rugby career. We are re-structuring the Academy from this season though, onto a provincial basis. There will be a provincial academy in each province - 22 players from each of Munster, Ulster and Leinster and 10 from Connacht - working with the provincial squads. The idea is that, particularly in light of the restrictions on overseas players coming in, the Academy guys can act as back-up where the Provinces come under pressure for players, as Leinster and Munster in particular did last year. It casts the net wider and given our need to maximise the return from the very best of our talent, there may be a concern on that score, but the objective is to replicate the excellence across a wider catchment rather than dilute it. It will be reviewed after a transitional period. But it needs to work. It has to work."
As regards the principal source of future talent he'll have to work with, McDermott can see pros and cons of the Schools system. "The Schools system has made the single biggest contribution to Irish rugby down the years. I know there are arguments as to whether it focuses too much on the need to win as opposed to player development, but there are benefits that accrue from learning how to win and from the media exposure that comes with, for instance, the Leinster Schools Cup. Changes have been made, particularly in ensuring that the second tier schools get meaningful competition. Ultimately, though, I think the Schools themselves are changing in terms of their focus. Their greatest priority is the academic side and some of the leading schools are taking steps to ensure that rugby doesn't interfere with performance in this key area."
Regardless of where they come from, the impression is that the players coming through the system will find in McDermott a man that does not plan to fail.
Note:The management of the Irish Under 21s want to thank their sponsors Powerade for their support throughout the year and the Shannon Oaks Hotel in Portumna for their hospitality during their week's camp there.