FLANKER Joe Dunleavy is enjoying an excellent sporting year and we’re still not even half way through 2018.
The nineteen-year-old Letterkenny man, who started his rugby as a six-year-old with the club’s minis, made his debut for the Ireland Under 20 team in their Six Nations Championship 30-25 win over Scotland at Donnybrook in early March.
A week later, Dunleavy made his second international start as Ireland wrapped up an up-and-down Six Nations campaign with a defeat to England at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry.
Last month he was part of the Malone team who won the All Ireland Division 2A title in front of their supporters at Gibson Park.
Since then he’s kept the head down and has been working hard as he looks to make the Ireland Under 20 squad for this summer’s World Rugby Under 20 Championship in France.
Ireland have been drawn with hosts France, South Africa and Georgia with matches being played in Béziers, Perpignan and Narbonne in June. It’s the next step in the career ladder for an exciting young talent who hopes to make his mark in the professional ranks in the future.
The youngest son of Josephine and Michael Dunleavy – he has four older brothers Michael, Dermot, Connor and Shaun – Joe was preparing to sit his Leaving Cert exams at Colaise Ailigh this time last year.
“That was a tough year. I had the studying and all the Ulster stuff going on. I’m in their pathway programme and they wanted me to join their academy after school but that involved a lot of training and trips to Belfast so I was happy enough with the way the exams went,” he said.
A talented sportsman, Joe played GAA and also enjoyed Jiu-Jitsu from a young age. However, with his father and four older brothers all lining out with Letterkenny Rugby Football Club at various grades, it was inevitable that he too would gravitate towards Dave Gallaher Park.
“I enjoyed all sports but there came a time when I had to make a decision and I went with rugby. We had a talented team at underage level in Letterkenny but we never quite managed to reach our potential. We played in two Under 18 Ulster finals and we had good coaches in Gordon Curley and Denis Faulkner,” he recalled.
He left Letterkenny for the City of Derry club and became the only person to play in the All Ireland League while still at school.
“Ulster wanted me to play at a higher level and the only option at the time was to join City of Derry. My first game wasn’t until New Year’s Eve – five days after my 18th birthday. It was against Dungannon. We went into the game on an eight-game losing streak and then won five in-a-row which was pretty nice,” he recalled.
This season, Joe found himself in Belfast where he linked up with the Malone club.
“There were a few clubs looking but I felt Malone were the best option. They had a good coaching ticket and a good squad,” he said.
Joe will continue to ply his trade at Gibson Park next season.
“Yeah, I’ll be back with Malone. We’re getting more players in and another forwards coach which should be good,” he said.
Comfortable playing either 6 or 8, Joe Dunleavy isn’t the biggest forward.
“The modern game is all about being able to get around the pitch. I’m 6’ 3” and 102.5 lb (16.5 stone) and I’ll continue to work on improving my weaknesses,” he said. Joe went straight from school into Ulster’s Academy system.
“If the rugby doesn’t work out I can always go back to education,” he said.
Michael Dunleavy senior was a front-row forward while Michael (Jnr) was also a talented rugby player.
“My brother Michael played in the second-row. He played for Ulster Under 19s and then went to Old Wesley in Dublin. He played to quite a high standard. The other brothers played back-row and second-row,” he said.
One year into a three-year contract with Ulster Rugby, Joe is hoping to graduate into the province’s Development squad and, ultimately, play senior rugby with Ulster.
“Hopefully I’ll win my first Ulster cap in 2019. I don’t want to wait about. I want to get stuck in. To pull on the Irish jersey remains a dream but with this pathway it’s more realistic. It’s definitely a goal for the future,” he said.
Joe Dunleavy became the first former Letterkenny RFC played to pull on the green jersey at Under 20 level when he was selected to take the field against Scotland back in March.
“That was pretty surreal. It was wonderful to get the chance to play for Ireland. The whole week in the lead up to the Scotland game I was getting good luck messages from people back home but it wasn’t until I put the jersey on after the warm-up that evening that it really hit me.
“Before the game, at the team meeting, the captain gets up and hands out the jerseys and names the team. That was pretty special and the fact that my whole family were there to see me play made it even better,” he said.
“It was also special to get the opportunity to play England in their home ground. Again, I got messages all week asking me to make sure we beat them which, unfortunately, didn’t happen but hopefully there will be another chance in the future,” he said.
Joe is now looking to impress Head coach Noel McNamara enough to get named on the Ireland Under-20s squad ahead of the Junior World Cup. They play a warm-up match against the Munster Academy on Sunday before they take on Scotland.
“To win more Under 20 caps would be pretty special. It would be great to get the opportunity to play against hosts France, South Africa and Georgia. I’m fit, injury-free and will just keep my head down and continue working hard and see where that takes me,” he said.
This is John's first trip to the World Championships where he will come up against full-time professionals.