IT’S Thursday afternoon and Jared Payne (32) is putting the players through their paces at Ulster’s open training session in Letterkenny RFC’s Dave Gallaher Park.
In the background, Rory Best, the captain of Ireland’s International team can be heard encouraging his young team-mates one of whom is a native of the Cathedral Town.
Flanker Joe Dunleavy, who plays with Malone, is part of the Ulster Rugby Academy squad for the upcoming season and he’s enjoying the visit to his home town club.
“It’s strange being back here. I’m usually training up in Belfast so it’s a nice environment, a nice change and it’s great to see a good crowd out here. It’s nice to see the minis out as well,” he said.
One of the brightest young prospects in Ulster Rugby, Joe (19) is hoping to build on a year which has already seen the back row forward line out for Ireland in the U20 Six Nations and the U20 Rugby World Cup in France.
“2018 has been a good year so far. It was great to get playing in the Six Nations and the World Cup games as well. Hopefully, I can push on and get involved in the Ulster senior squad this year. That’s the aim. This is the start of it – training with them,” he said.
“This is my second year in the Academy. I’ve another year to go and then hopefully I’ll push on to the senior level. We have a good academy squad and a lot of the guys are getting experience now by training with the senior squad.
“Ideally, I would like to get playing senior before the end of the year. That would give me a great boost in confidence going into next year,” he said.
It all started for Joe at Letterkenny minis when he went along with his older brothers Dermot, Conor, Sean and Micheal. From there he played right the way through to U18 level with the club during which time they reached a couple of Ulster Carpets finals at Kingspan Stadium.
He got his first taste of All Ireland League rugby with City of Derry before linking up with Belfast club Malone last year.
“I’ve been lucky to have had a few good coaches at Letterkenny but the main guys would be Gordon Curley and Denis Faulkner who brought me into the U18 set-up when I was still under 16.
“When I ran out onto the pitch today Gordon was the first person I was seen. That was a pretty nice moment,” he said.
Joe also got the opportunity to surprise his mother, Josephine, on Wednesday.
“I was able to sleep in my own bed last night. I hadn’t been home in two weeks and we had a good day yesterday. We got to the beach and had some time to relax. I’m a ten minute drive from here while the rest of the lads had a two hour journey to get to the pitch,” he said.
Former Ireland flanker Simon Easterby is currently working with Ulster ahead of the arrival of new head coach Dan McFarland.
“It’s good to see someone I know in the coaching squad and we get on pretty well. He was a coach with the Ireland U20s. He’s a massive help to my game and has brought with him that international experience,” he said.
Ulster and Ireland rugby player Chris Henry is another familiar face.
“Chris helps out with the forwards at Malone. I train with him all day and then he’s out helping us in the evening at the club. It’s great,” he added.
Joe scored Ireland’s opening try against hosts France in the U20 World Cup and he’s hoping to take that experience into the new season.
“Against France we were up against some guys who are already playing in the Pro 16 at the highest level. There’s no underage to fall back on any more and it’s now up to me to step up to the mark.
“I’ve had a few chats with the coaches and they’ve said that it’s up to me now to show what I’m about. They’ve told me there will be times when you’ll be worried that you’re not getting chances but they’ve said that I need to stay patient and keep working hard,” he said.
An interested spectator at Dave Gallaher Park on Thursday was young Letterkenny RFC player Conor McMenamin, a member of the Ireland Under-18 Schools team last year.
“He’s massive – a lot bigger than me and it’s great to see so many young lads like Conor coming through the club. Great credit has to go to the coaches. I was at an U14 game recently and they had two teams. We never had that,” Joe said.
“I’ve a lot of personal goals to work on. I would love to get a cap (Ulster) or to be involved in the squad. It’s now up to me to try and make that transition.”
Posted: 9:26 am July 30, 2018