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'I can't wait to learn off RG Snyman... It's like man against boys in some of the clips'

Waterford native Thomas Ahern made a big impression for the Ireland U20s this year.

IF YOU’RE GOING to be stuck somewhere in lockdown, the seaside village of Ardmore in County Waterford isn’t the worst place to be, particularly with the lovely weather recently.

Munster academy and Ireland U20s second row Thomas Ahern has been back home with rugby on hold in recent months, training away and also studying for the Food Science and Health exams he finished online – rather than in the University of Limerick – last week.

Ahern’s family home is beside the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, meaning they have a stunning view over the beach. His cousin was able to deliver an old squat rack just before lockdown kicked in, while there’s a soccer pitch for running sessions nearby.

irelands-u20-thomas-ahern Second row Ahern was superb for the Ireland U20s this year. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I’ve a decent set-up,” says Ahern. “My brother and my dad are my training partners at the moment. My dad is definitely getting fitter anyway. My brother is 12 and ironically, he’s the one complaining most rather than my dad.”

But for Covid-19, Ahern and the Ireland U20s would be building towards the World Rugby U20 Championship in Italy, but that competition has been cancelled and their bid for a Grand Slam in the 2020 Six Nations was cut short after three wins from three.

Ahern and the rest of Noel McNamara’s squad appreciate that there are more important things at play but it was still disappointing, given that most of them will be overage for U20s rugby next season.

“To be honest, it was tough to take because we had built up a lot of momentum and our best was yet to come,” says Ahern. “But Noel, throughout the whole campaign, always talked about adapting. He said we should go back to our provinces, or back home, and get fitter and stronger. I’m looking at it that way, trying to stay positive.”

6ft 9ins Ahern made some stunning contributions to the U20s’ three wins this year, impressing with his dynamism, work-rate, handling skill and physicality.

Two short-range tries against England were impressive but his pacy finish in the opener against Scotland was especially memorable and underlined that the Waterford man has a special skillset. His speed also hints at how the 20-year-old was playing fullback until as recently as 2017.

Ahern’s parents are both from GAA families in Cork, so he was initially more interested in hurling and football too, until stumbling into rugby by chance when his cousin’s friend had to drop out of a rugby summer camp in nearby Youghal, just over the Cork border. The place was paid for, so Ahern stepped in and instantly loved it.

He played with Youghal RFC for five years until moving to Dungarvan RFC at the age of 14 because it was easier going to to St. Augustine’s College in the town for secondary school.

In sixth year, with Dungarvan struggling for playing numbers, Ahern joined Waterpark RFC in Waterford City, by which time he had moved into the second row – sparked by a growth spurt of around four inches over the course of one summer.

alan-tynan-and-thomas-ahern-celebrate-after-the-game Ahern after helping Munster A to a win over Leinster last year. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Ahern was already in the Munster pathway at that stage too, having first linked up with the East Munster cadets, then progressed onto the Munster U17s squad, where he first decided to focus on rugby over football and hurling.

“We got a glimpse into the professional side of it there because we were based in Rockwell College three or four days a week for training,” recalls Ahern.

“I just loved the idea of being with a group of people all the time, training as hard as we did. It really enticed me.”

When he progressed on to the Munster U18s, coach Noel O’Meara encouraged him to make the move to second row and Ahern says he was fortunate they had lineout workshops with the legendary Paul O’Connell as they prepared for their inter-pros, while former Munster player Ken O’Connell also helped with Ahern’s technique.

“It was difficult at first because jumping properly really is a skill,” says Ahern of making the leap into the second row.

“You can jump up and have your body shape all over the place but we had a very good group with the U18s and they helped me through it. Most evenings in camp in UL, we’d go down to the astro and rep through lineouts.”

Ireland Schools coach Peter Smyth was another influence when Ahern made that side in 2018, his explosive development signalling the potential that ensured Munster brought him into their academy straight out of school that summer.

Ahern’s rise has been impressive regardless of where he’s from but Waterford people take real pride in how he is developing. There’s not a big history of Déise men making a mark on the professional game, but Ahern did have a role model to look up to.

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“It’s in the back of your mind but I didn’t really find it daunting,” says Ahern of breaking the mould. “It was more exciting because I had seen Jack O’Donoghue and the way he went up through the age grades to captain the Ireland U20s.

“He’s gone on to captain Munster and he was a big inspiration for me personally. He’s a big inspiration for most people in Waterford who play rugby.”

jack-odonoghue Waterford man Jack O'Donoghue is a role model for Ahern. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

O’Donoghue made a point of taking Ahern for a coffee and giving him his mobile number when the Ardmore man landed into the Munster academy, and the hope is that many more Waterford men can follow in the Ireland international’s footsteps.

Déise man Eoin O’Connor, a second row who Ahern played with in Waterpark, is in his first year of the Munster academy and Ahern says “there’s a lot of talent here in Waterford.”

Ahern’s own first season with the academy was frustrating due to injury niggles but he got fully fit towards the end of the campaign and impressed for the Ireland U19s to earn a call-up for the World Rugby U20 Championship in Argentina last summer – where he showed his talent despite being a year younger than most players.

Returning to Munster, Ahern benefited from the 2019 Rugby World Cup period as Johann van Graan called on the province’s academy to train full-time with the senior squad for the entire time the internationals were away.

“It was great exposure, learning from the older members of the squad, seeing what makes them professionals,” says Ahern. 

“I’d go into into the computer room and you’d see Billy Holland, Darren O’Shea, Fineen Wycherley, all the other second rows in getting their lineout detail. That’s been a big focus for me, seeing what makes them tick and trying to bring that to my game.”

Ahern says van Graan made the younger players feel at home by encouraging them to speak up in meetings.

“To be fair, Johann always asks for our input so it’s not just senior guys talking. He’s good to work with because he’s very open.” 

Boosted by that experience, Ahern returned to the Ireland U20s fold this year as a key men and was named in their leadership group. The second row has loved working with U20s boss Noel McNamara over the last year, praising the Leinster academy boss’ attention to detail, work ethic, and honesty.

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Ahern linked up with AIL side Shannon when he first moved to Limerick and was “welcomed with open arms.” For their part, Shannon have benefited from Ahern’s eye-catching ability whenever he has played, most obviously when he scored directly after regaining a kick-off against Old Wesley this season.

Looking to the future, Ahern is keen to continue his physical development, seeing this lockdown period as a good chance to push himself on that front. He’s weighing in at 111kg now and would ideally like to get to 115kg.

That said, maintaining the explosive power and pace he possesses will be important, while it’s Ahern’s comfort in offloading and passing that also helps to set him apart from other locks.

“It’s a bit of a point of difference and luckily I have those skills,” he says. “I’ve got to keep working on them because they can help me in the future, bringing something different to the table.”

Ahern is excited to get back into Munster and work closely with locks of the calibre of Holland, Tadhg Beirne, Wycherley and Jean Kleyn as he pushes on towards his senior debut.

South African World Cup winner RG Snyman will be a fascinating addition to the second row mix for Munster too – with Damian de Allende providing something similar in the backline – and Ahern is looking forward to seeing the Springbok lock up close.

Given that Snyman is also 6ft 9ins and loves an offload, the resemblance is hard to ignore.

“We’re kind of similar and I can’t wait to learn off him and the others,” says Ahern.

“We’re a similar height but just his athleticism, I’ve been watching clips of how he was getting on in Japan and I love the way he plays. It’s like man against boys in some of those clips.
“The squad is very competitive and it’s going to be awesome to learn from the likes of them.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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