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Eight young players to watch in the URC this season
There’s plenty of young talent to keep an eye on across the four provinces.

A NEW UNITED Rugby Championship season brings with it the usual mix of excitement and anticipation, and this year is likely to have a slightly different feel to it with the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France inching ever closer. 

The structure of the season has a new look, with no fixtures planned during the international windows and the IRFU sending an Emerging Ireland squad to South Africa later this month, stripping the provinces of some of their most exciting young prospects for a number of weeks.

It’s all well and good to showcase your talents to the national coaches but for many young players, making a strong impression at provincial level will be the main focus this season. 

Here, we’ve highlighted eight players aged 23 or younger who will be keen to make their mark in the league this season – some of whom are already on the cusp of pushing for starting positions, and others who are hoping to make their big breakthrough in the coming months.

Connacht

1. David Hawkshaw (23), out-half

Hawkshaw was highly rated at Leinster but with so many options at 10 ahead of him, his move west seems the right call for a young player keen to get more minutes under his belt. The former Belvedere man comes from a strong sporting family – Hawkshaw previously played minor hurling for Dublin, while his mother played camogie for Limerick, sister Sarah has represented Ireland in hockey and his two brothers are also both talented rugby players, older brother James lining out for Clontarf while Daniel is in the Connacht academy and was part of the Ireland U20s squad this year.

One of the big issues for Connacht over the last number of seasons has been adding strength and depth to their squad, and that’s where Hawkshaw comes into the picture. Too often, the province have been overly-reliant on their front-liners and when they need to dip a little deeper into their reserves, there has been a noticeable dip. Hawkshaw will aim to push Connacht captain Jack Carty and provide reliable, consistent cover at 10, but faces competition from Conor Fitzgerald and Cathal Forde. A quality addition who can also cover 12, his versatility could come in handy across a demanding season. 

2. Dylan Tierney-Martin (23), hooker

Hampered by injury last year, the Corinthians man is a home-grown Connacht talent who will be keen to make up for lost time. The hooker was top try-scorer for the Ireland U20s in the 2019 Grand Slam season and will hope to keep that close-range threat part of his arsenal at senior provincial level.

dylan-tierney-martin James Crombie / INPHO Connacht's Dylan Tierney-Martin. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Having previously played as a flanker, Tierney-Martin can count a strong chop-tackle among his strengths and used his time on the sidelines last season to work on his athleticism. This is his second season as part of the senior Connacht squad, but having made just five appearances for the province last season, this will be the year he hopes to break through. 

Leinster

1. Joe McCarthy (21), second row

One of the most notable breakthrough players last season, 6ft 6ins, 119kg McCarthy looks set to have a big future in the game. McCarthy made his Leinster debut against Cardiff in January and added 10 more caps before the season’s end, shooting up the pecking order to feature off the bench in the Champions Cup final defeat to La Rochelle. McCarthy trained with the Ireland squad during the Six Nations and Andy Farrell described the former Blackrock College student as being “outstanding” during that camp. 

The Ireland boss also highlighted McCarthy’s “big legs” as a strength, but the second row has impressive skills to compliment his power. Featured for Ireland in the midweek games against the Maori All Blacks and will look to impress the national coaches again during the Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa. A big season ahead.  

2. Jamie Osborne (20), centre/fullback

Osborne signed his first senior contract with Leinster at the end of last season after a number of promising displays in the blue jersey. Following six appearances in his debut campaign (2020/21), the Naas RFC man added 13 caps last season, including 11 starts.

jamie-osborne Ben Brady / INPHO Osborne can cover a number of positions across the backline. Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

The versatile Osborne has featured in the 12, 13 and 15 jerseys for Leinster but most of his caps have come at outside centre. He has admirers higher up the IRFU chain too, with Farrell calling him up to train with the Ireland squad as a development player during the 2021 Autumn international window. Osborne has also been selected for the upcoming Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa, but with Leinster, his focus will be to make the transition from promising young player to featuring in more matchday squads when the big days roll around. 

Munster

1. Alex Kendellen (21), backrow

At just 21, Kendellen has already shown he’s well able to mix it alongside Munster’s more established backrow stars. Excelled as Ireland captain at U20 level, and the leadership he displayed at age grade has carried through to senior level. If he wasn’t heading on the Emerging Ireland tour, he’d likely be racking up plenty of minutes in the URC.

In just his second year in the Munster academy, Kendellen broke into the senior team last season and despite his young age, quickly gained the trust of the Munster coaching staff and made some big impacts against top-tier opposition – including a memorable display in the Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Toulouse, which was just his second Champions Cup start. It’s easy to see why he has cited fellow PBC graduate Peter O’Mahony as a role model. The young Cork man already looks like he could be cut from the same cloth.

2. Tom Ahern (22), second row

Another Munster forward with a big future ahead of him. Has only six senior starts to his name, but Ahern looks primed to kick on again, showing flashes of his obvious potential across last season, having been held back the year before by various injuries. At 6’9″ and 117kg, Ahern has the frame to add some extra physicality to the Munster pack, while boasting pace not usually associated with the number on his back.

Happy to get involved with the attacking play too, his handling skills honed during his previous life as a full-back. The Waterford man’s time playing Gaelic football and hurling hardly hurt either. Another young player getting set to embark on the Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa, he’s been in Farrell’s thinking for some time already, having trained with the Ireland squad last season. It’s easy to see why Paul O’Connell and Co were so keen to get him into camp. Ahern has all the raw materials to become a seriously impactful second row. 

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Ulster

1. Nathan Doak (20), scrum-half

Unlike some of the players on this list Doak has had plenty of exposure already, featuring 25 times for Ulster last season. Still, at just 20 years old there is much more to come from the son of former Ulster player and coach, Neil, and it will be intriguing to see how his game develops again over the course of the season. Shot to prominence with the Ireland U20s in 2021 and quickly settled in as part of the Ulster senior side. His first senior contract arrived last December, Ulster acknowledging his status as one of the most promising young players in Ireland with a four-year deal. 

nathan-doak-clears-the-ball-despite-rory-arnold Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Doak already looks right at home in the Ulster team. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Yet to be capped at Test level, Doak missed out on the summer tour to New Zealand but will head to South Africa with the Emerging Ireland squad. Calm under pressure, he offers a strong running threat and can also offer his services as a quality place-kicker. It will be fascinating to see how his battle for the nine shirt with John Cooney develops this year. The gap is already closing.

2. Jake Flannery (23) out-half/full-back

With Joey Carbery, Ben Healy and Jack Crowley all jostling for time in the 10 shirt at Munster, Flannery decided to back himself and step away from home comforts for a new challenge at Ulster. The 23-year-old is clearly an ambitious young player who will hope to quickly make a mark at his new province.

Joined the Munster academy in the summer of 2019, having shone for the Ireland U20s in their Grand Slam-winning campaign that year. With opportunites limited at Munster, Flannery put his head down with Shannon in the AIL, where he continued to impress. Johann van Graan was said to be interested in signing Flannery when he left Munster for Bath, with a number of French clubs also believed to have been interested in securing his services. Can play at out-half or full-back, and looks at exciting addition to a competitive Ulster backline bursting with young talent.   

- Originally published at 06.30

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