Earlier this season we caught up with Dragons Academy Head Coach - Matt O’Brien - for Fired Up magazine and he gave us an insight into life working with the next generation of stars…
Fly half Matt O’Brien is known as one of the leading marksmen in the Welsh Premiership – but during the working week he gets his kicks out of developing the next generation of talent in the region.
Head Coach O’Brien has been a full-time part of the Dragons Academy set-up for the last two years – and coached the Under-18 backs for several years before that on a part-time basis.
The Academy at the region has a tradition of producing talented players for the senior squad, with a large number of the current first-team having come through the system.
The role of the Dragons Academy is to identify and develop talented young athletes from 15 to 23 years of age, developing them through a Performance Development Programme.
O’Brien helps run a programme that is tailored towards the needs of the individual, to ensure that every player can reach their maximum potential.
And with Director of Dragons Rugby, Dean Ryan, keen to harness the wealth of talent in the region, it is a hugely rewarding role for O’Brien and staff.
“The region has got to produce from the Academy. The players know that, the staff know that, and that is ultimately why we are in the job,” he said.
“Dean has been great and is really wants to invest in the Academy. He has taken a fair bit of time out of his schedule to get involved in it and get his beliefs across.
“One of his main drivers is not pushing them in too early. Still giving them a good opportunity, but not judging them when they are 18 or 19 as a senior player.
“They are going to make mistakes at that age, that is naturally going to happen, and they need support and nurturing. “It’s all about the right opportunity at the right time. They have got to deserve it and, more importantly, it’s about supporting them.
“Perhaps if performances don’t go as well as expected, it’s not a closed door, it is all part of the development."
O’Brien works closely in the system with former Dragons prop Sam Hobbs (now Academy Forwards Coach) plus the backroom staff.
“It’s a great team to be a part of - Hobbsy is always smiling and picks up the mood,” laughed O’Brien.
“It’s great to have Hobbsy with us, offering his expertise up front. He has been a great addition to the team - and is the happiest miserable man I know!”
And while O’Brien works closely with the backs and on attack, he admits a big part of the Academy work now is what young players do away from the action.
“A big part now is their holistic development. It’s not just what they are doing when they cross the white line, it is also their behaviour off the field too,” said O’Brien, a graduate of Cardiff Metropolitan University.
“Dan Owens from the WRPA comes in and delivers on lifestyle while we also talk to them about food, preparing meals and cooking.
“Ultimately, we are asking these boys to be better conditioned and put on size or lose body fat. They are 16 or 17-years-old and need to be better educated on how to do that the right way."
Part of a rugby family – younger brothers Angus and Loui also play at fly half – Matt has become an iconic figure for Newport RFC since his debut in 2013.
The Newport-born ace has piled up over 800 points for the Black and Ambers and has no plans to pack up his boots yet – even if he admits his working week and weekends can sometimes collide.
“It’s getting a big tricky now some of the young Academy lads are starting to play with me or against me in the Premiership,” he smiled.
“Connor Edwards, Brodie Coghlan and Dafydd Buckland have all had some action with Newport recently so it can be a little bit strange lining-up with them. It’s good to see them progressing.
“It is a bit strange when I come in on a Monday morning and the boys are pulling me up on my clips, things that I’ve told them not to do that I’m doing myself. They don’t let me get away with anything!
“I do still enjoy playing. I’ve got a couple of years left in the legs yet and enjoy the weekends."
And as for the future of the Academy – O’Brien is in no doubt adding: “It’s definitely a bright one. It’s all going in the right direction.
“We have some really good young players coming through, some of which have gained a bit of experience with the senior side this year already. We’re all excited about what we can achieve.”
We have some really good young players coming through, some of which have gained a bit of experience with the senior side this year already...