Dan Soper’s high hopes for ‘massively important’ Ulster academy

Ulster skills coach Dan Soper believes the academy will be in good hands with the appointments of Gavin Hogg and Willie Faloon.

By Ciaran Donaghy
Tuesday, 25th May 2021, 1:00 pm

Hogg will take the helm, with Faloon joining the academy as Elite Performance Development Officer, specialising in forwards play.

“Willie, I know well, played with him, when he was starting out as a senior rugby player I was tailing off, I coached him at ‘Hinch,” said Soper. “Willie was a very hard, uncompromising player with a real physical edge to his play, then having coached against him in school and club land in recent years you see those characteristics come through in his teams.

“Gavin is a really smart rugby person, thinks outside the box, he really understands the pathway in terms of developing young players.

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Ulster skills coach Dan Soper. Pic by John Dickson.

“I think he going to be excellent.

“Look at the number of young guys that have come through the academy that are now well-established in the team.

“The academy is massively important, the more players that we can produce ourselves the better off that’s going to be in the long run.”

Soper acknowledges how difficult it has been for young players to develop due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The academy staff haven’t had the contact they normally have and they haven’t had the opportunity to go out and watch young guys play, because those young guys are not playing they are not getting the opportunity to develop and playing games at that age is the most important thing,” he said. “It has been an issue but it is no different to anyone else on this side of the world.

“There are a lot of great things going on with the regional squads and they are bringing in big numbers to get a look at a lot of guys and there is a really thorough programme.

“Let us just all hope there is a pathway back to normality so those young people can get out and play their matches in August or September.”

Soper has been delighted with the impact Callum Reid, another one of his school protégés, has made in recent weeks against Munster and Leinster.

The Belfast-born loose head prop won three Schools’ Cup honours under Soper at RBAI.

“As a front row forward it is going to be so hard to jump into playing professional rugby when you are first or second year out of school,” said Soper. “Anybody who watched those guys (Michael Lowry and James Hume) coming through at school would have said Callum’s influence on his school team and playing in the Ulster Schools set-up was as significant as Michael and James as an example.

“It just takes a wee bit longer for guys in those sort of positions to push through and physically develop to the level that they can be competitive in the front row, in Callum’s case.

“I was always confident that he could do it at this level.

“You’re right in the last couple of weeks he’s put his hand up and done a good job.

“The challenge for him is to take that next step to try and force his way into being a regular in the team.

“From our point of view it is great to have another player of quality challenging to make it really competitive, that is what we want.”

Will Addison is suspended for the clash with the Scarlets at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday afternoon while John Cooney is unlikely to feature.

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