Connacht Academy star Hugh Gavin was a key figure in 2023 for the Ireland Under-20s (sponsored by PwC). He played all 400 minutes of the U-20 Six Nations Grand Slam-winning campaign, scoring three tries.
The Salthill youngster spent most of last season lining out on the wing, but he played the Ireland Under-20s’ recent warm-up games in his preferred position of centre, where he is expected to feature more this time around.
Gavin is one of the talented young Connacht centres coming up through the ranks out west. John Devine, his good friend and U-20 team-mate from last year, is one, while Cathal Forde and Shane Jennings have both been making their mark in the BKT United Rugby Championship this season.
Connacht’s famous 2016 PRO12 title-winning season, especially the final victory over Leinster in Edinburgh, is one of Gavin’s standout rugby memories as a child. He dreams of days like that in his rugby future.
“I was over at it (in Murrayfield). It was an unbelievable day. Just the build-up, everyone outside the stadium, probably one of my favourite rugby memories,” he said, speaking at the Ireland U-20 squad announcement which was held at PwC headquarters in Dublin last week.
“After the game, I’d never seen my dad in tears, he was flooded. All the players coming up, high-fiving us after the game, it was unbelievable. It’s something I’ll always dream about doing.
“It was always going to be rugby but that would have sealed it. That will always be my dream, to win silverware with Connacht.
“I was 11 or 12. We took the ferry over, myself and my dad and my two brothers, a real good trip for all of us. They were all heavily into the rugby as well. We’d get on very well and talk about it a lot.”
The Galwegians centre started his rugby at Crowley Park at the age of six, following in the footsteps of his father Barry. He stood out for ‘Wegians before earning a call-up and impressing for Connacht at Under-18 and Under-19 level.
He got picked to play for the Connacht Eagles in the summer of 2022, and from there, Connacht Academy manager Eric Elwood rewarded his progress with an Academy place. He made his Energia All-Ireland League debut for ‘Wegians at the beginning of the 2022/23 campaign.
His eye-catching performances earned him a spot in the Ireland Under-20 squad last season. The powerfully-built back, who stands at 6ft 4in and weighs over 16 stone, was not expecting to get as much game-time as he did, especially having only just turned 19.
“No, to be honest going in I was maybe an outsider at the start of the season. I was only Under-19, I hadn’t really played too many high-level games. Played an Eagles game, was surprised to get called up to that camp.
“All I was thinking of was trying to put my best foot forward, and ended up getting selected for the squad. I was delighted to get into the matchday team.
“Every game was about proving myself again. I think the coaches maybe saw that hard work and I was getting selected then so I was happy.”
Gavin started nine of the Ireland U-20s’ ten matches last term, and also appeared off the bench against Fiji during their run through to the World Rugby U-20 Championship final. He finished the global tournament in an all-Connacht centre pairing with Devine.
Acknowledging that the demands on the body were tough, he noted: “It was definitely tough on the legs, thankfully I wasn’t picking up niggles so recovery wasn’t too bad.
“It was just mainly rest, getting yourself ready for the next game. That’s why you play rugby, you play to play in the big games. I enjoyed every second of it.”
It is often hard to gauge much about a team from warm-up fixtures. As well as facing the Munster and Leinster Development sides over the festive period, Richie Murphy’s Ireland U-20s beat Italy 35-29 at the UCD Bowl last month.
A major positive from that clash with the Italians was the budding centre partnership between Gavin and UCD’s Wilhelm de Klerk. They looked to be very much in sync during the first half, showing their attacking threat.
Gavin is enjoying playing alongside the promising play-maker, saying: “He’s a very good player. I would have learned a lot last year from the likes of Mark (Sexton) and Richie (Murphy) so he’s always coming to me asking for stuff.
“He’s hungry to learn as well so even for both of us feeling each other out, seeing what we want, it’s been really helpful. We get a lot of energy off each other. He’s a brave player and he’s happy to go after the game. He’s been good to play with.”
Ireland’s U-20 Six Nations opener is a rematch with World champions France at Stade Maurice David on Saturday week (kick-off 9.10pm local time/8.10pm Irish time). Tickets for their three home matches at Cork’s Virgin Media Park are available to purchase via Ticketmaster.ie.
Beginning the 2024 Championship away in Aix-en-Provence, it will be a huge moment for many of Murphy’s young guns, who will be making their competitive debuts for their country at this level.
Gavin, who is fully aware of the size of the occasion, highlighted how important it is that the new players just focus on one job at a time.
“The first game is a big game for lads that haven’t got selected at that level. It’s on the TV, there’s a packed-out stadium, you get butterflies but as the Six Nations went on (last year) I got more comfortable, more and more confident pre-game, not really thinking about anything else.
“I just focused on the game. For the lads this year it’s important to keep them in the game, and not let anyone think of the outside stuff. Just focus on your next job,” he added.